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When an Auto Accident Becomes a Criminal Offense



There are several ways in which an auto accident usually a civil incident can escalate and become a criminal offense. While the laws vary by jurisdiction, there are three commonly recognized types of auto accidents that can result in criminal charges.

Hit and Run (or Leaving the Scene of an Accident or Failure to Stop)

Motorists are required to stop their vehicles when they have auto accidents. The requirement applies to all accidents, not just serious ones with significant property damage or serious injuries. Fender benders and accidents with minor property damage also trigger the requirement. A motorist is required to stop and return to the scene of the accident. The motorist must exchange information with other driver(s) and parties, including name, contact information, and insurance information. In most jurisdictions, a motorist is also required to provide assistance to those injured, in a reasonable manner.

If a defendant is found guilty of a hit-and-run criminal offense, serious penalties and a criminal record can result. The specific charge that a motorist will face usually depends on the outcome of the accident. More serious criminal charges accompany auto accidents that cause bad injuries or death. If the only result of an auto accident is property damage, a motorist who leaves the scene may still encounter a misdemeanor offense charge. A court appearance is required on the part of the defendant. The sanctions and punishments typically given to motorists convicted of hit-and-run accidents include loss of driving privileges with suspended driver's licenses, assignment of points on a driver's license record, and increased insurance premiums, as well as possible jail time. A driver might also be required to purchase high-risk driver insurance if the accident is major or if the driver has a history of other driving incidents and/or tickets in his or her recent driving record.

Reckless Driving

Reckless driving is a type of criminal driving offense. It is defined as driving in a way that jeopardizes lives and property and puts them in risk of harm. The offense is broadly defined and is open to police discretion. The offense varies by jurisdiction, as laws are state-specific. Some states have laws that trigger reckless driving due simply to speeds involved, such as 20 mph over the posted limit or driving 80 mph or faster. This offense can result in a suspended driver's license or possible jail time. A defendant's privilege to drive is in serious jeopardy when a reckless driving offense is brought.

Drunk Driving

Drunk driving is a very common charge brought in criminal court. The specific offense is called a DUI or DWI. Every U.S. state has enacted a blood alcohol content (BAC) law that defines .08 percent as impaired. If a driver is found to be over this limit, he or she is considered to be driving impaired. Often, the mere attainment of that BAC limit is sufficient evidence to convict a driver. A driver can also be arrested, charged, and convicted of drunk driving even if he or she does not reach the BAC limit because all states have discretion built into their laws defining driving impairment. This offense is often a high target with police, and most drivers suspected of the offense are arrested. For most adults, as few as two drinks can raise one's BAC to the limit. The penalties that result vary widely by jurisdiction. However, the range of punishment and sanctions includes loss of driver's license, suspension of license, fines and fees in the thousands, increased auto insurance premiums, ignition interlock devices, and jail time. Jail is probable for repeat offenders.