Criminal Law Blog

Leaving After Colliding Statute Requires Drivers to Identify Themselves Without Unreasonable Delay, But Not Immediately


Cherry v. District of Columbia (decided July 27, 2017)

Players: Associate Judges Thompson, Beckwith, and McLeese. Opinion by Judge McLeese.  Matthew J. Peed for Mr. Cherry. Trial Judge: William M. Jackson.

Facts: Appellant appealed his conviction for leaving after colliding in violation of D.C. Code §50- 2201.05c (a)(2). Appellant hit a wall adjacent to a convenience store with his car. After the crash, appellant walked toward the convenience store and then came back to the scene of the crash. Officers arrived shortly after and asked a group of onlookers, including appellant, if they had seen anything, and appellant did not identify himself.

An officer then went to the convenience store and watched the surveillance footage. He recognized appellant as the driver, and began to search for him. Appellant had also walked toward the store but the officer did not see him. The officer was in the basement reviewing footage and admitted he could have missed appellant. Twelve minutes after the officer watched the footage, appellant approached the group, identified himself as the driver, and was arrested.

The trial judge found appellant was required to identify himself immediately to the officers on the scene and failed to do so quickly enough. Appellant was convicted of colliding and leaving.

Issue 1: Was appellant required to provide identifying information to law enforcement immediately?

Answer: No. D.C. Code §50- 2201.05c (a)(2) does not create this obligation. It states in part:

(a) Any person who operates… a vehicle within the District who knows or has reason to believe that his or her vehicle has been in a collision shall immediately stop and:

… 

(2) Where real or personal property belonging to another is damaged…, provide identifying information to the owner… or, where the owner or operator… is not present, provide…identifying information and the location of the collision to law enforcement.

The statute requires that the driver provide identifying information to the owner of the damaged property and only if the owner is not present must the driver provide identifying information to law enforcement.

The trial judge’s understanding was wrong because the statute does not require a driver to “immediately” provide identifying information. The term “immediately” only modifies “stop” and not “provide” because “provide” is too far removed from “immediately.” The court considered the statute’s intervening punctuation, grammatical complexity, and other substantive considerations and held they support this finding.

Issue 2: Can drivers wait as long as they like before providing identifying information, as long as they do not leave the scene?

Answer: No, the statute does not explicitly say when drivers must provide identifying information, but the court held it must be without unreasonable delay. Although the title to the statute is “Leaving after Colliding,” the court declined to interpret the statute to allow a driver to remain on the scene for an extended time while refusing to provide identifying information. The court stated the significance of the statute’s title should not be exaggerated, and should be only be considered when interpreting an “ambiguous word or phrase in the statue.”

The court held the statute not only requires drivers to stop and remain on the scene, but to take further steps while there, including summoning necessary medical assistance and providing identifying information.

Issue 3: Was the evidence sufficient to convict appellant?

Answer: Yes, viewed in the light most favorable to the government, the evidence indicated that: (1) appellant did not identify himself as the driver when asked; (2) appellant promptly walked away from the scene of the collision; (3) the officer did not see appellant enter the store; (4) the store owners did not seem to be aware of the collision when the officer entered the store; (5) the officer could not find appellant after identifying him on the tape; and (6) twelve minutes later, appellant returned to the scene and identified himself. This evidence would permit a rational fact-finder to find that appellant’s delay was unreasonable because he never notified the owner of the wall and instead left the scene for twelve minutes before identifying himself.

The court also held the driver must take affirmative steps to provide identifying information, simply leaving a car at the scene was not enough.

The trial judge’s comments imply he could have been relying on an incorrect understanding of the law, but other bases not considered by the trial court would sustain the conviction. The court vacated the judgment and remanded the case for the trial court to reweigh the evidence, rather than reversing outright. 

AB

Read the full opinion here.