Leaving After Colliding/Hit-and-Run in D.C.

While it is not a crime to be involved in a traffic accident, it is illegal to leave the scene of an accident without either reporting the incident or waiting for police to arrive.  This is known in many jurisdictions as “hit-and-run” or as “leaving the scene of an accident.”  In Washington, D.C., the offense is called “Leaving After Colliding.”

What is “leaving after colliding” in D.C.?

There are two different forms of the offense in D.C.  In the case of an accident in which another person has been injured, the person must immediately stop and make sure that emergency assistance is provided as necessary.  The person must also (1) remain on the scene until police arrive and (2) provide identifying information to both law enforcement personnel and to the injured person.

The penalty for a first-time violator of this part of the statute is a maximum fine of $1,000 and incarceration for up to 180 days.  Second offenders are subject to a fine of $2,500 and up to 1 year in jail.

In cases in which the car accident results in property damage or in injury to a domestic animal, the person must immediately stop.  The person must also provide identifying information to the owner of the property or animal.  If the owner is not present, the person must provide identifying information and the location of the collision to law enforcement or to the 911 operator.  D.C. Code § 50-2201.05(c).

The maximum penalty for a first-time violator of this part of the statute is a $250 fine and 30 days in jail.  

It is an affirmative defense to this charge that the person’s failure to stop or to remain on the scene was the result of a reasonable belief that his or her personal safety was at risk and that he or she called 911 or otherwise notified law enforcement as soon as it was safe to do so.  It is not a defense that the person was intoxicated, impaired in any way or distracted or that the person was not at fault for the collision.

What should I do if I receive a letter asking me to come in for an interview with police?

People who are suspected of having violated this statute are typically notified by mail and asked to come into a police district building to answer questions.  The letter warns of dire consequences — including the issuance of an arrest warrant — if the person fails to comply.  Because these people are now potentially subject to criminal liability, it is important that they hire defense counsel to protect their interests.  This is one of the rare instances in criminal defense in which the lawyer is able to speak with police officers before an arrest. The goal is to prevent police from forwarding the paperwork to the Office of the Attorney General for possible prosecution. 

The first step upon receiving the letter is to obtain a copy of the accident report.  You can do this yourself with instructions here.  Or you can ask your lawyer to do this for you.  Although the narrative typically consists of only a paragraph or two, the report will provide you — and your lawyer — a good idea of how strong the government’s case against you might be.  For example, how detailed is the description of the person who was allegedly driving the car?

One of the major challenges facing police will be to identify the person who was behind the wheel of the car that left the scene.  For example, although they may know the identify of the person who owns the car, they may not know who was actually driving it on the night in question.  This is why it is important that the recipient of the letter not incriminate him- or herself.  

There are typically only one or two officers at each Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) district building who serve as the “hit-and-run” coordinators, and they often have other responsibilities as well.  This means that the investigations can stretch out over a number of months.  This can be stressful for the person who is being investigated.  

In James Crawford v. District of Columbia, 192 A.3d 568 (D.C. 2018), the D.C. Court of Appeals held that the Leaving After Colliding — Property Damage (LAC-PD) statute requires the government to prove mens rea (i.e., criminal intent).  Specifically, the person operating the vehicle “must know[] or ha[ve] reason to believe” that his or her vehicle was in an accident.  D.C. Code § 50-2201.05c(a). 

For a D.C. criminal defense attorney with experience handling this type of case, please contact Jamison Koehler at 202-549-2374 or jkoehler@koehlerlaw.net