Virginia has laws controlling the conduct of drivers and passengers involved in vehicle accidents. According to Virginia Code § 46.2-894, all drivers involved in automobile accidents have four responsibilities:
- Stop as close to the scene of the accident as possible without obstructing traffic;
- Provide reasonable medical assistance to any injured person;
- Report your name, address, driver’s license number, and vehicle registration number to state or local police; and
- Also provide that information to the drivers or custodians of the other vehicles if they are able to understand it.
Failing to perform these responsibilities is referred to as “leaving the scene of an accident” or “hit and run,” and is a felony in Virginia.
Virginia law also requires any passengers over the age of sixteen to ensure that the information is reported to either state police or local law enforcement within 24 hours, or they can be charged with a felony as well.
The exact penalties for being found guilty of leaving the scene of an accident will vary based on the circumstances. However, for the driver, they can include up to ten years of jail time in addition to substantial fines. For passengers, the maximum penalties can include up to five years in prison.
For this reason, it’s important to contact a lawyer if you are being charged with leaving the scene of an accident. Failing to do so can have drastic consequences for your life, your license, and even your freedom.
What is Hit and Run?
An interesting note is that Virginia does not recognize the term “hit and run,” but instead calls the offense “leaving the scene of an accident.” For this reason, any driver or passenger over sixteen who is directly involved in an accident, and then leaves the scene, may be charged with a crime.
There are two important things to know about Virginia’s “hit and run” laws:
- First, they apply to passengers over the age of 16 as well as drivers. Although passengers will typically receive lesser penalties, it is still very possible to lose your license and receive jail time even if you weren’t in the driver’s seat.
- Second, Virginia doesn’t care about who is at fault. Both drivers involved in the accident must stop, even if they believe they aren’t at fault.
Similarly, you must attempt to give your information to the other driver and you must inform the police about any and all accidents. Failing to do so could result in hit and run charges, even if the damage seems minor.
All of this comes down to the following: a Virginia motorist should always stop, inform the police, and provide reasonable medical attention to any injured parties in the event of an accident.
Not only is this a legal responsibility, but a moral one.
Similarly, you should always provide complete, accurate information to other parties involved in the accident as well as the police. Failing to do so, even as a passenger, could result in charges.
Reasonable Medical Attention
Most of your obligations as a motorist involved in an accident are easy to understand. However, the definition of “reasonable medical attention” is ultimately up to the interpretation of the court.
At the bare minimum, this involves notifying emergency services, or transporting any individual requiring or requesting medical treatment to a doctor or hospital.
Damaged Party not Present
If you hit an unattended vehicle or unattended property, Virginia law requires you to make a reasonable effort to find the owner. If this effort fails, you can leave a written notice at the scene. This notice must include your name and address, as well as the circumstances of the accident. You must still notify the police in writing within 24 hours. This same requirement applies to passengers over 16 years old.
All of Virginia’s hit and run laws apply to public and private property as well as vehicles. If you run into any objects on someone’s property and leave the scene, you can still be charged with leaving the scene of the accident.
Types of Hit and Run Charges
The type of charge and maximum sentence for a hit and run accident will depend upon a number of circumstances. The most important are whether or not there was a person in the other vehicle, and what degree of damage the accident inflicted.
The law reserves the most severe charges for accidents which caused death, injuries, or more than $1,000 of property damage.
Felony Leaving the Scene of an Accident (Driver)
The most severe type of hit and run charge is a class 5 felony. The state may charge you with felony leaving the scene of an accident in the following circumstances:
- You were driving the vehicle at the time of the accident.
- Another person or attended vehicle was involved in the accident.
- That person suffered death or injury. Alternatively, the accident caused more than $1,000 in property damage.
Misdemeanor Leaving the Scene of an Accident (Driver)
If your hit and run accident did not result in injury, death, or more than $1,000 in property damage, the state may charge you with a misdemeanor. The precise nature of this charge will vary:
- Less than $1,000 worth of damage to an attended vehicle is a class 1 misdemeanor.
- Damage to an unattended vehicle or property in excess of $250 is also a class 1 misdemeanor.
- Less than $250 worth of damage to an unattended vehicle or property is a class 4 misdemeanor.
Felony Leaving the Scene of an Accident (Passenger)
For a passenger, the most severe hit and run charge is a class 6 felony. While the penalties are frequently less severe in a class 5 felony, being charged with a class 6 felony is still a cause for extreme concern. In particular, you will still lose the rights associated with a felony conviction in Virginia. You will also have to report your felony conviction in certain circumstances, such as on job applications.
A passenger may be charged with felony hit and run in any accident which caused death or injury. Property damage, even very severe property damage, will not result in felony charges for a passenger.
Misdemeanor Leaving the Scene of an Accident (Passenger)
Even if the hit and run accident did not result in death or injury, passengers may still be charged with a misdemeanor. The type of misdemeanor charge will depend on a few different factors:
- If the vehicle was attended, passengers may be charged with a class 1 misdemeanor.
- Damage to an unattended vehicle or property in excess of $250 is also a class 1 misdemeanor.
- Damage to an unattended vehicle or property below $250 is a class 4 misdemeanor.
The maximum penalties you could suffer will depend on the type of hit and run the state charges you with. Using the categories from above we get the following maximums as outlined in Virginia Code § 46.2-894 and § 46.2-900:
- Class 5 Felony (Driver): 10 years in jail or prison, and a $2,500 fine.
- Class 6 Felony (Passenger): 5 years in jail or prison, and a $2,500 fine.
- Class 1 Misdemeanor (Driver or Passenger): 12 months in jail, and a $2,500 fine.
- Class 4 Misdemeanor (Driver or Passenger): $250 fine.
In addition, all except for the class 4 misdemeanor charge will result in a 6-month license suspension. If you were driving the car and the accident caused an injury or death, the court may increase this to a full year suspension. Similarly, the court may decide to impose additional penalties if you were already driving on a suspended license at the time.
Note that these penalties can increase for repeat offenses. For example, the court may revoke your license for up to five years if you are convicted of leaving the scene of an accident more than three times.
If you are convicted of felony leaving the scene of an accident, the state will strip certain rights from you. For example, the Commonwealth of Virginia forbids felons from voting, possessing firearms, and exercising many other rights.
While these can eventually be restored, this is can be a long and difficult process.
Additionally, immigrants found guilty of a felony could lose their immigration status. Whether or not this is a risk will depend on the specific type of visa that you have. Undocumented immigrants will likely be put in removal proceedings and with a felony conviction they are unlikely to prevail on their immigration defense.
However, it’s important to discuss the possibility with your lawyer, and to disclose your full immigration status to him or her. Doing so is the only way to enable your attorney to build the strongest possible case in your defense.
What to Expect at your Trial
In Virginia, the state treats leaving the scene of an accident exactly like any other criminal offense.
First, law enforcement charges you with the crime and puts out a warrant for your arrest. Soon after, the court will hold an arraignment, at which a judge will read you your charges and rights.
Many times, your attorney will attempt to work out a deal with the prosecutor (Commonwealth Attorney). This is particularly true in felony cases, where the stakes are much higher. In most cases, this deal will involve pleading guilty or no contest in exchange for a reduced charge or sentence.
After an arraignment and possibly probable cause hearing, your case will go to trial. In most cases a judge will decide on your sentence by taking the facts of the case into account (a bench trial, in other words).
However, you may instead request a jury trial under some circumstances. This is relatively uncommon, however, because jury trials have less predictable results than bench trials and you can end up with a much harsher sentence.
If you are charged with a felony, your case will start in the General District Court, but would actually be tried in Circuit Court. If the General District judge finds there was probable cause for your arrest, she will certify the charge to a Grand Jury to decide whether to indict you. Once indicted, the case actually begins in the Circuit Court.
As you can see, Virginia law treats hit and run accidents very seriously. Fortunately, the penalties stated above are the worst-case scenario. If your attorney can argue that those penalties are inappropriate, you may end up with a significantly reduced sentence.
The following are a few of the most common mitigating factors. However, keep in mind that your final sentence is still up to the discretion of the judge in your case.
VA Code § 46.2-894 makes special provisions for injured drivers. You may be able to prove that your injuries prevented you from performing the duties outlined above, and that you reported the accident as soon as you were able.
If you can do so, a judge is likely to find you innocent. Likewise, the court may decide to drop your charges if you can prove that the accident impaired your judgement significantly.
Leaving the scene of an accident is a criminal offense in Virginia. That means that the police have a responsibility to correctly follow criminal procedure in hit and run cases.
You and your lawyer should always check and make sure that warrants and other elements of police procedure were handled correctly in your case. If they weren’t, you may be able to argue that the judge should drop your charges on procedural grounds.
It may seem obvious, but the state has to prove that you were the one driving the car, or at least a passenger. If you have evidence proving that you were not the driver or were somewhere else at the time, present it to your lawyer immediately.
In most cases, the court will also want a narrative explaining who was driving your car at the time of the accident.
Classes and Programs
Depending on the circumstances of your accident, it may also be a good idea to take certain classes or programs prior to your court date. The idea here is to demonstrate that you have made a commitment to becoming a more responsible driver without the intervention of the justice system.
The type of class or program you should look for will depend on the location of your trial. Each county and city in Virginia has different ideas of what program is appropriate. While most will point you towards defensive driving courses, other counties might prefer community service programs. Thus, it’s important to talk to your lawyer before making a decision.
Making an Appeal
In most cases, a defendant unsatisfied with his or her verdict can appeal to a higher court. However, keep in mind that in case of a retrial, you may always receive harsher penalties. For this reason, you should only file an appeal after careful consultation with your attorney.
The appeals process will vary based on whether you had felony or misdemeanor charges placed against you. In the case of a misdemeanor, you may appeal for a second trial in a circuit court. Appealing to circuit court is an automatic right and you get a new trial. This will also allow you to request a jury trial if your lawyer recommends it.
Those facing felony charges can instead appeal to the Virginia Court of Appeals, which may choose to review the evidence against you and revise your verdict. Appealing to the Court of Appeals is an expensive and difficult prospect. Generally, the Court will not reverse your criminal conviction unless one of the following occurred:
- Legal Error: the judge used the wrong law or standard, or applied the law improperly.
- Abuse of Discretion: the judge abused her legal discretion (ability to decide).
- Factual Basis: If the decision of the judge or jury was “plainly wrong or without supporting evidence.” Note: this does not mean that you disagree with the judge, this means that she was so wrong that reasonable person would disagree with her.
The best advice for anyone involved in a hit and run accident is to get in touch with an experienced lawyer as soon as possible. By calling on trained legal counsel early, you can plan your defense have the best chance of a good outcome.