Leaving the Scene of Property Damage

Leaving the scene of property damage carries a license suspension and a possible jail sentence following a conviction.

Elements of Leaving the Scene of Property Damage

The Commonwealth must prove four elements beyond a reasonable doubt - that the defendant:

  1. Operated (drove or controlled) a car, truck, or some other motor vehicle;
  2. On a public way (an area accessible to the public or a street maintained by the government);
  3. Knowingly hit another car or piece of property causing damage; and
  4. Neglected to stop and provide his or her name, motor vehicle registration, and other personal information.

The prosecutor can usually prove the second element easily. Almost all roads are maintained by the state, federal, or local government, and most other areas where accidents occur (such as restaurant or store parking lots) are accessible to the general public. The prosecutor also will be able to easily prove the fourth element, because if the driver had stopped and gotten out of the car, charges never would have been filed. Most cases alleging leaving the scene of property damage are defended on the first and third elements. Was the defendant the driver? And if so, was the driver aware of the collision that caused the damage? There are typically two ways to defend these cases.

Identification – Many defendants charged with leaving the scene of property damage will dispute they were the driver who was involved in the accident.  The Commonwealth bears the burden of proving the defendant was operating the motor vehicle, and proof that the defendant is the owner of the car is insufficient to sustain a conviction.  In most cases, the police do not witness the accident and its immediate aftermath, so investigating officers rely on civilian eyewitnesses to identify the driver who fled.  Any eyewitness who identifies Attorney Spring's client as the operator will be met with an aggressive cross-examination on the following points:

  • whether the motor vehicle's speed would have prevented the eyewitness from having a good view of the driver;
  • whether a hat, sunglasses, or anything else on the driver's head or face would have limited the eyewitness' view;
  • whether the area was lit well enough to allow for an accurate identification;
  • whether the car sped away in an erratic fashion; and
  • whether the front visor, the rear view mirror, any decals on the windshield, or even other passengers could have shielded the driver's face from the eyewitness.

After conducting their investigation, police officers will usually request that eyewitnesses identify the alleged driver by doing one of the following:

  • Show-Up Identification – If the police have someone in custody who they believe was the driver, they will sometimes ask the eyewitness to look at the individual and confirm that he or she was driving.  The police will usually present only one person (the defendant) to the eyewitness, and the defendant is often handcuffed or surrounded by police officers.  Attorney Spring often files (and has won) motions to suppress these identifications, as they are unduly suggestive and prejudicial.
  • Photograph Lineup – Instead of show-up identifications, the police will sometimes present eyewitnesses with a number of photographs (including the photograph of the defendant) and ask the eyewitness to pick out the driver.  Appellate courts have established a series of rules that police officers must follow in order for the results of a photo lineup to be shared with the jury.  If the police fail to follow the rules, Attorney Spring will file (and has won) motions to suppress.

Knowing Collision with Another Car or Piece of Property – In some of these cases, the Commonwealth is able to establish that the defendant was driving the car that damaged the property.  In those situations, the next question is whether the driver knew he or she struck (and damaged) the property.  Often times, defendants will argue that because of bad lighting, bad weather, or other external conditions, they were unaware that a collision had occurred at all.  If the defendant wasn't aware of the collision and resulting damage, there can be no conviction for leaving the scene of property damage.

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