Leaving the scene of a traffic accident (hit-and-run) is a crime in all states, but most states have a short statute of limitations (SOL) for when prosecutors can file charges.
However, the State of California law takes hit-and-run very seriously, so in 2013, state legislators extended the SOL to six years. This statute of limitations applies whether you are charged with a misdemeanor hit-and-run under Vehicle Code 20002 VC or a felony hit-and-run under Vehicle Code 20001 VC.
Assembly Bill 184 was signed into law in 2014. Before AB 184, the SOL for a hit-and-run charge was three years.
Under California law, a criminal statute of limitations refers to the maximum time allowed for a prosecutor to file criminal charges. A “hit-and-run” is when a motorist hits a vehicle, person, or property and flees the crime scene.
Vehicle Code 20002 VC misdemeanor hit-and-run can be charged when someone leaves the scene of an accident without first identifying themselves to the other party and someone's property was damaged in the accident.
It does not matter who was at fault or the amount of damage. If convicted of violating VC 20002, you face up to six months in county jail and a fine of up to $1,000.
Vehicle Code 20001 VC felony hit-and-run can be charged when someone is involved in an accident that resulted in injury or death to another person, and you willfully failed to inform somebody of the accident.
The prosecutor must prove that he knew an accident had occurred, that another person was injured or killed, or that the accident was of such a nature that it was probable that another individual was injured or killed. If you're charged with a crime within this time frame and are convicted, you could face up to six months in jail for a misdemeanor or up to four years for a felony offense.
What Is the Statute of Limitations?
A statute of limitations (SOL) is the designated time limit for when legal action can be taken against someone for committing a crime or causing harm. Once the specified period has passed, the individual can no longer be charged or sued for the incident. This time limit protects individuals from being vulnerable to legal action for past mistakes or offenses.
The SOL may vary widely depending on the type and severity of the crime committed. In California, for example:
- The standard SOL for a misdemeanor offense is one year, and
- The SOL for most felonies is defined under California Penal Code 801 PC for three years.
However, certain types of crimes may have special statutes of limitations attached to them, making them longer (as is the case with hit-and-run offenses). However, some crimes do not have a statute of limitations as defined under California Penal Code 799 PC, such as PC 187 murder.
The SOL exists to help ensure fairness for defendants. For example, evidence can be lost or destroyed over time. Crime witnesses may also move after several years, or they may no longer remember specific facts that occurred. This means it might be unfair to pursue criminal charges against someone after a certain period has passed.
The Discovery Rule determines when the statutory period for filing criminal charges begins. The SOL clock starts to run when a crime is discovered.
What Constitutes a Hit-and-Run Accident?
A hit-and-run incident occurs when a driver involved in an accident, whether with another vehicle, pedestrian, or property, deliberately leaves the scene without providing their contact information or waiting for the police to arrive. This act is a criminal offense because it violates the principle of responsibility and hinders the investigation and compensation process.
The repercussions of a hit-and-run offense depend on the severity of the accident. If the hit-and-run results in property damage, it is typically classified as a misdemeanor. However, if the incident leads to injury or death, it could be elevated to a felony charge.
VC 20002 misdemeanor hit-and-run says, “(a) The driver of any vehicle involved in an accident resulting only in damage to any property, including vehicles, shall immediately stop the vehicle at the nearest location that will not impede traffic or otherwise jeopardize the safety of other motorists. Moving the vehicle in accordance with this subdivision does not affect the question of fault. The driver shall also immediately do either of the following….”
VC 20001 felony hit-and-run says, “(a) The driver of a vehicle involved in an accident resulting in injury to a person, other than himself or herself, or in the death of a person shall immediately stop the vehicle at the scene of the accident and shall fulfill the requirements of Sections 20003 and 20004….”
How Does Hit-and-Run Differs from Other Accidents?
Unlike other accidents, where the responsible party remains at the scene, hit-and-run cases present a unique challenge to law enforcement agencies.
The identification and apprehension of the offender can take significantly longer, given that the perpetrator has fled the scene. This factor justifies a longer SOL for hit-and-run offenses than other traffic violations.
What is Assembly Bill 184?
The SOL for filing charges for a hit-and-run offense is standard across most states (i.e., one year for a misdemeanor and three years for a felony). In California, however, the SOL was extended to 6 years for both misdemeanor and felony hit-and-run charges through the passage of Assembly Bill 184 (2013).
This law was passed in response to many hit-and-run cases (most of which were happening in larger cities like Los Angeles) in which the perpetrators were escaping prosecution because law enforcement could not locate them within the time frame of the statute of limitations.
The legislators behind AB 184 argued that the previous SOL did not provide adequate time for investigations in hit-and-run cases. With the new 6-year SOL, investigators have more time to gather evidence, locate suspects, and file charges.
What Are the Penalties for Hit-and-Run?
Misdemeanors are typically charged when the hit-and-run only damages property (VC 20002). If someone is injured or killed as a result (VC 20001), the hit-and-run is a "wobbler," meaning it can be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony. For violations of VC 20002 (misdemeanor), you could face:
- Up to six months in county jail and
- Up to $1,000 in fines.
For violations of VC 20002:
If charged as a misdemeanor, you could face:
- Up to one year in county jail and
- Fines ranging from $1,000 to $10,000.
If charged as a felony, you could face:
- Up to four years in state prison and
- Fines ranging from $1000 to $10,000.
If you need more information about hit-and-run cases, contact our California criminal defense lawyers to review the case details. Eisner Gorin LLP is based in Los Angeles, CA.