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Hit-and-run convictions require proof of knowledge by driver

The Florida Supreme Court has ruled that drivers who get into an accident but who do not realize it cannot be convicted of leaving the scene of a crash.

The case arose out of an accident that happened in Boca Raton in 2007, when a skateboarder accidentally fell into a crosswalk and into the path of an oncoming truck. The truck ran over him and dragged him almost 90 feet underneath it before traveling another three miles. That is when police caught up with the driver and pulled him over. The victim survived the accident, but still suffers from the effects of a traumatic brain injury.

The driver claimed that he was unaware that he had hit anyone. A jury nonetheless convicted him of leaving the scene of an accident and sentenced him to two years imprisonment. On appeal, the appeals court overturned the conviction and ordered a new trial. The basis of the reversal was that the jury was never asked to decide whether the driver in fact knew that he had been in an accident.

The Florida Supreme Court agreed with the appeals court, holding that to convict someone of hit-and-run driving the prosecution must demonstrate that the accused knew what he or she was doing upon leaving the scene, that is, that the conduct must be willful, and not ignorant.

It is not yet known whether prosecutors will retry the case. Also not yet clear is how successful in the future claims of ignorance will be for drivers accused of hit-and-run driving. In the case at hand, the defendant's truck was not damaged in the accident, it was raining at the time, and the driver claimed that when he struck the skateboarder his radio, air conditioner and windshield wipers were on. He was not under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Simply claiming lack of awareness of having been in an accident will not result in automatic acquittals going forward. Trials involving criminal charges against drivers who say that they did not know they were in an accident will still need to be decided on their own particular facts, including witness testimony, the prevalent environmental conditions at the time of the accident, the physical and mental condition of the driver, the extent of damage, if any to his or her vehicle, and other considerations.

Source: Orlando Sentinel, "Court: Florida must prove hit-and-run drivers knew about crash," Gary Fineout, Feb. 26, 2015 

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