Last updated on May 2nd, 2019
Virginia has laws controlling the conduct of drivers and passengers involved in traffic accidents. According to Virginia Code § 46.2-894, all drivers involved in automobile accidents have four general 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
- 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.” In Virginia, leaving the scene of an accident can be a felony, punishable with both massive fines and jail time.
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 the Virginia Code 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, these laws apply to all 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 courts don’t care who was at fault when it comes to your responsibilities after an accident. Both drivers 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 should inform the police about any and all accidents. Failing to do so could result in criminal charges, even if the damage seems minor.
Additionally, you should always provide complete, accurate information to other parties involved in the accident as well as the police. If you fail to do so, or if you falsify this information, you may end up with “hit and run” charges.
However, sometimes it can be hard to know your specific responsibilities after an accident. Often, this happens when one or more of the following facts are true:
- The other party was significantly injured in the accident.
- You hit someone’s property while they weren’t there, such as an unattended vehicle.
- You crashed your car onto someone’s land and damaged their property.
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 that you 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 also 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 the maximum sentence for a hit and run accident will depend upon a number of circumstances.
The most important are (1) whether or not there was a person in the other vehicle, and (2) the amount of damage the accident inflicted.
Notably, the law reserves the most severe penalties for accidents which resulted in 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, you may also be charged if 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 can vary based on a number of circumstances:
- If the accident resulted in less than $1,000 in damage to an attended vehicle, the crime will be punished as a Class 1 misdemeanor.
- Damage to an unattended vehicle, or property in excess of $250, is also a Class 1 misdemeanor.
- If the accident resulted in than $250 worth of damage to an unattended vehicle or property, the crime will be punished as 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.
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 accident did not result in death or injury, you 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.
Penalties for a Hit and Run Conviction in Virginia
In this way, there are a number of different penalties you should expect if you are convicted of leaving the scene of an accident in Virginia.
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.
However, in most cases you will likely only receive a fraction of these penalties.
In addition, a conviction of leaving the scene of an accident will likely 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 also 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.
For this reason, it’s important to discuss any immigration implications with your lawyer. 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.
If your case actually goes to trial, you’ll want to plan a personalized defense with your attorney. Since these cases are so fact-specific, you’ll want to make sure you cover all your bases before appearing in court.
Possible Defenses to Hit and Run in Virginia
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 prove that the accident impaired your judgment, or that you were otherwise indisposed by a medical emergency, the court may dismiss the charges.
Leaving the scene of an accident is a criminal offense in Virginia. That means that the police have a responsibility to follow a specific 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.
You Weren’t the Driver
It may seem obvious, but the state has to prove that you were involved in the accident. If you have evidence proving that you were not the driver you should 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.
For example, being able to prove that your car was stolen or that you were somewhere else at the time may provide you with a solid defense.
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. While most will point you towards defensive driving courses, other counties might prefer community service programs.
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.
Even passengers can be charged with leaving the scene of an accident in Virginia, and the penalties for a conviction are rather severe.
For this reason, you’ll want to speak with an attorney early in order to plan the best possible defense in your case. Even if you can’t get the charges dismissed entirely, a solid argument could potentially lead to reduced charges or lower penalties.