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Hit & Run Charges in California
- Vehicle Code §20002 -

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Hit and Run – VC 20002

In California, all drivers have a duty to stop their vehicle whenever they are involved in a traffic accident. This applies to everyone involved, even those who were not at fault. Failure to stop your vehicle after a traffic accident could lead to criminal charges being filed against you for hit and run.


Hit and run is a common criminal charge in California, especially in very populated areas like Orange County, Los Angeles, and San Diego. Depending on the circumstances, hit and run can either be charged as a minor misdemeanor offense or a more serious felony charge.

Hit and run charges should never be taken lightly. The following information is only intended to provide a general understanding of hit and run charges in California.


However, it is always recommended that someone charged with hit and run contact an experienced criminal defense lawyer at JPLaw, P.C. as soon as possible.

1.  What is considered a hit and run?

Misdemeanor hit and run is criminalized pursuant to California Vehicle Code §20002. A misdemeanor hit and run arises when a driver fails to comply with their legal duties following a traffic accident that resulted in damage to someone else’s property.  

The driver must be involved in a vehicle accident.

A driver’s legal duties after an accident only apply when they were “involved in the vehicle accident” in some way. A driver is considered “involved in a vehicle accident” whenever they are connected to an accident in a natural or logical manner.


Although there has to be evidence of property damage (which we’ll discuss in just a moment) it is not necessary for the driver’s vehicle to collide with another vehicle or person in order for them to be connected to the accident. Consider the following example.


Two vehicles are approaching a traffic intersection in opposite directions. One of the vehicles decides to turn left at the intersection and crosses in front of the other vehicle. In doing so, the turning vehicle miscalculates the time it needs to safely make the turn and causes the other vehicle to swerve off the road and collide with a small business located at the corner of the intersection.


Obviously, the driver who swerved off the road is considered involved in the accident since it was his vehicle that collided with the business, but the turning driver would also be connected to the accident.


Although the driver of the vehicle that made the turn did not collide with the other vehicle, he is still considered to be involved in the accident. It is natural and logical to connect the driver of the turning vehicle to the accident because it was his failure to accurately gauge how much time he had to turn that ultimately led to the other vehicle swerving off the road.


An example of someone who is NOT considered involved in the vehicle accident is the driver of a vehicle who simply witnessed the collision from a distance. It is neither natural nor logical to connect this third driver to the accident simply because they witnessed the collision.

The accident must cause damage to someone else's property.

A driver also doesn’t have a duty to stop unless the accident caused damage to someone else’s property. Thus, a driver who is involved in an accident that only causes damage to his own vehicle does not have a duty to stop their vehicle.


It is important to note that you don’t have to actually know the accident caused damage to someone else’s property. Your duties following an accident would arise if you knew from the nature of the accident that it was probable that property had been damaged.


In the example above, knowledge of the damage would likely be imputed to the driver of the turning vehicle since it is probable that property damage resulted from the other vehicle colliding with the business.​

An accident is the cause of property damage if it meets two requirements. The first requirement is that the property would not have been damaged but for the accident. In other words, if the accident hadn’t happened, then the property wouldn’t have been damaged.


The second requirement is that the accident must be a proximate cause of the property damage. An accident is considered a proximate cause of the property damage if a reasonable person would know the damage is likely to happen if nothing unusual intervenes.

Vehicle Damage

Property damage doesn't always have to look like this for it to be charged with hit and run. Even a small scratch is enough to be considered property damage within the meaning of Vehicle Code §20002

Two duties arise after an accident that causes property damage.

A drive who is involved in an accident resulting in property damage must (1) immediately stop their vehicle and (2) provide their contact information to the owner of the damaged property.

1.  The driver has a duty to immediately stop.

Although the law states that the driver must immediately stop their vehicle, it does provide some leeway. You are permitted to continue to the nearest location that will not impede traffic or otherwise jeopardize the safety of other motorists.


This is often a matter of dispute in hit and run cases where a driver parks their vehicle down the street and returns on foot.  Prosecutors often claim that the driver panicked after the accident and only later decided to return, which would technically be considered a violation of their duty to stop.


However, if the driver had moved his vehicle because it was blocking traffic and returned after parking, then he may have fulfilled his duty to immediately stop his vehicle.

2. The driver has a duty to provide their information to the other party.

After stopping your vehicle, the law requires that you immediately provide your contact information to the owner or person in control of the damaged property. Additionally, if you were driving a vehicle that did not belong to you, you must also provide the name and address of the owner of the vehicle you were driving.


At a minimum the information must include your name and current address. However, you must also provide your driver’s license and the vehicle registration, if requested.


You may be asking yourself “what if I hit a parked car and the owner wasn’t around?” That does not relieve you of your duty to provide your information. Under those circumstances, the law requires you leave the required information on a written note in a conspicuous place on the vehicle or other damaged property and notify law enforcement as soon as possible.

Failure to perform either of these legal duties may result in you being charged with misdemeanor hit and run.

2.  What should you do if an officer reaches out to you about a hit and run?

Since all drivers are required to have liability insurance before hitting the roads in California, officers will usually assume that a hit and run suspect either didn’t have insurance or was involved in some other criminal activity, like driving under the influence. 


If an officer has information to possibly identify the person responsible for hit and run, they will sometimes try reaching out to the suspect. If an officer reaches out to you and accuses you of hit and run, you should ALWAYS avoid saying anything incriminating.


Contrary to popular belief, it is not always necessary that an officer read you your Miranda rights prior to asking you questions. Therefore, you should assume that anything you say to the officer will potentially be used against you in court.


The best thing to do when an officer reaches out is to tell the officer that you do not feel comfortable speaking to law enforcement without an attorney. The officer must cease all questioning at that time.

Pursuant to Penal Code §836.5, an officer is prohibited from arresting a defendant for a misdemeanor offense, unless the offense was committed in the presence of the officer, or the officer has a warrant that is signed by a judicial officer.


More commonly, however, the officer will issue a hit and run suspect a citation with a notice to appear in court. In any event, you should immediately contact an experienced criminal defense lawyer at JPLaw, P.C.


A criminal defense lawyer will be able to contact the law enforcement agency or officer that reached out and notify them that they should not contact you without first contacting your lawyer.

3.  What are the penalties for misdemeanor hit and run?

As previously mentioned, a hit and run that results only in property damage is a misdemeanor offense in the state of California. A person convicted of misdemeanor hit and run is subject to the following penalties:

  1. Up to 6-months in the county jail,

  2. Up to a $1,000 fine, or

  3. Both that fine and imprisonment.

Alternatively, a judge may grant probation to a defendant convicted of misdemeanor hit and run. Probation is an act of leniency by the court. If granted probation, the defendant must ensure that they comply with all of the terms and conditions of probation.


Failure to do so could result in revocation of probation and the defendant being resentenced up to the maximum punishment for the offense, which is listed above.


A court will ordinarily grant informal probation to a defendant convicted of misdemeanor hit and run. Informal probation – sometimes called summary probation – is not run by the probation department, but through the court.

Informal probation for misdemeanor hit and run can last up to 12 months and usually includes the following terms:

  • A fine

  • A driving course

  • Community service or community labor

  • An order to pay restitution

  • An order to not commit any new law violations

Tasks often include some form of community service or community labor. 

Three people participating in community service

4.  What Does the Prosecutor Need to Prove?

Like in every criminal case, you may not be convicted or punished unless a jury finds you guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The prosecutor is responsible for proving every essential component of the charge. The essential components of a crime are called “elements.”

In order to find a defendant guilty of misdemeanor hit and run, the prosecutor must prove all of the following elements beyond a reasonable doubt:

  1. While driving, the defendant was involved in a vehicle accident;

  2. The accident caused damage to someone else’s property;

  3. The defendant knew that (he/she) had been involved in an accident that caused property damage; AND

  4. The defendant willfully failed to perform one or more of the following duties:

(a) To immediately stop at the scene of the accident; OR 

(b) To immediately provide the owner or person in control of the damaged property with (his/her) name and current residence address.  

If the prosecutor fails to prove any one of the elements, then the jury is required to find the defendant NOT guilty. Although the defendant is not responsible for disproving any of the elements, it is always best to present evidence that can prove your innocence if it is available.  

5.  What evidence can the prosecutor use against you?

These days, it is easier than ever before for prosecutors to prove someone committed a hit and run. Between the traffic cameras installed at the top of traffic signals and the security cameras on just about every business and residence, there is a plethora of evidence at their disposal.

Witness Testimony

Witness testimony plays a large role almost every hit and run case. It usually includes either the alleged victim, a passenger in the victim’s vehicle, or a third-party who witnessed the accident.


If the prosecutor intends to rely on witness testimony, it is likely that the witness made a prior statement to law enforcement.  If so, the prosecutor must provide you a copy of that statement before trial for you to review.


Failure to provide the defendant a copy of the witness’s statements before trial could result in excluding the witness from testifying. Moreover, unless an exception applies, a witness is not permitted to testify about hearsay statements.


Contrary to what you may have learned from watching Law & Order, hearsay is not just one party says one thing and the other party says another. A hearsay statement is a statement that is made by someone out of court that is intended to be used for the truth of the statement.

The Defendant's Statements

Probably the most damning piece of evidence are your own statements. As mentioned earlier, an officer is not always required to read you your Miranda rights before asking you questions.


A prosecutor will almost certainly want to introduce in evidence a statement where the defendant voluntarily admits they fled the scene of the accident.


Call a lawyer before making any statements to police. 

Surveillance Footage

Investigators will sometimes inquire whether there were cameras near the area of a hit and run. If so, they will review the footage and obtain copies to use in court.


This evidence is especially important when the alleged victim was not present at the scene or did not get an accurate look at the suspect. Surveillance footage is only admissible in evidence if it can be properly authenticated, though.  

A good criminal defense lawyer will know what evidence is admissible and what can be excluded prior to the start of trial. That said, you should hire a lawyer that is well versed in the rules of evidence.

Defense lawyers often have to object to evidence on the fly during the course of trial. Hiring a criminal defense lawyer that is unfamiliar with the rules of evidence could lead to inadmissible evidence being used against you.

6.  What are some common defenses to hit and run charges?

There are many defenses a good criminal defense lawyer can use to defend someone charged with hit and run for violating VC section 20002. 

Lack of Knowledge

A defendant MUST know that they were involved in an accident before deciding to flee. If the driver does not have knowledge that they were in an accident, then they cannot be convicted of hit and run.


Although many hit and run defendant’s try and claim they didn’t know they hit something, not all are convincing to a jury. This defense is particularly useful in cases where only minor property damage is alleged. If the damage is very minor, then the accident that caused the damage must also be minor.


It is much easier for a jury to believe a defendant didn’t know they were in an accident when the accident was only a fender bender. But the reverse is also true. If the collision was very severe, a jury can refuse to believe the defendant’s claim that he lacked knowledge of the accident.

You Weren't the Driver

Criminal liability for hit and run is connected to the driver who committed the offense, not the vehicle involved. Occasionally, however, the victim of a hit and run only gets the vehicle’s license plate number and the prosecutors end up charging the owner of the vehicle.


In these cases, the prosecutor assumes the owner was driving the vehicle at the time of the accident. One way to fight the charges is by identifying the person who actually committed the hit and run. This isn’t always the best option, though.


More often than not it was a friend or family member who was driving. Although identifying them may get the owner of the vehicle out of trouble, the owner usually doesn’t want to throw their loved one under the bus.


A better option is to show that you could not possibly have been the driver. Providing evidence that you were in a different place at the exact time of the alleged hit and run will usually cause the prosecutor to dismiss the charges against you.

Judicial Diversion Pursuant to Penal Code §1001.95

You should NEVER plead guilty without first considering all your options. Even if you are caught red handed and there is a mountain of evidence against you, there may still be ways to avoid a criminal record.


One of the best ways to avoid a conviction for misdemeanor hit and run is to request that the court offer you judicial diversion pursuant to Penal Code §1001.95.


Judicial diversion – sometimes called misdemeanor diversion – permits a judge to suspend criminal proceedings while the defendant completes several tasks that are ordered by the court.


If the defendant successfully completes all of the tasks, then the judge is required to dismiss the defendant’s case and seal all of the records associated with the case.


Like probation, judicial diversion is an act of clemency. A judge is not required to offer a defendant diversion. Thus, a defendant should prepare a good mitigation packet before submitting their request for judicial diversion. Visit the dedicated judicial diversion page to learn more about how you can avoid pleading guilty. 

It is important to remember that every situation is different. If you or someone you love has been charged with hit and run for allegedly violating VC §20002, it is imperative that you contact an experienced and knowledgeable criminal defense lawyer at JPLaw, P.C. as soon as possible.

Contact An Orange County Criminal Defense Lawyer 

John-Patrick Mullen-Lujan is a trusted Orange County criminal defense lawyer that prides himself on his ability to communicate with clients as he helps them navigate our complex criminal justice system.


Attorney Mullen-Lujan was named one of the Best Criminal Defense Lawyers in Orange and Newport Beach. Hire an attorney you can trust and who can provide the zealous advocacy you need.


Contact JPLaw, P.C. to schedule your FREE consultation with local Orange County criminal defense lawyer John-Patrick Mullen-Lujan. Together you will review your case and develop a legal defense strategy tailored just for you!


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Orange County Law Office

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Phone: (949) 991-7057

410 N Clark St.
Orange, CA 92868

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