Whenever a car accident occurs, insurance companies will always look to find who is at fault when someone files a claim. While police may sometimes compile a report that can be beneficial to the insurance companies, they aren’t necessarily required to be involved at all. But when a car accident involves serious injury or death, police tend to write reports and when a driver involved in these types of car crashes is suspected of drunk driving or reckless driving, this police report won’t just be used for insurance purposes, but also as legal evidence of a crime. So how do police investigate car accidents and decide who is at fault in a case that can result in criminal charges?
Why Fault Matters
Just because someone was driving under the influence or otherwise violating traffic laws doesn’t actually mean they were the person responsible for a car crash. As an example, imagine someone is drunk and driving 60 miles an hour in a 30 zone. They may be driving quite dangerously and be incapacitated by alcohol, but if they are going through a green light and another driver runs a red light and crashes into their vehicle, the first driver is not responsible even if they certainly should not be on the road.
This is very important because when it comes to enhanced charges for injury accidents, the defendant must actually be the one who caused the accident in order to face these enhanced charges. In this case, evidence collected by the police officer and the insurance company will serve as evidence of the suspect’s guilt. If their defense attorney can successfully show there is insufficient evidence to prove they caused the crash, then they will not face these enhanced charges, although they still could face charges related to DUI or reckless driving.
That being said, if a person is driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs or is driving recklessly and causes a collision that results in injury or death, they will face felony charges that could leave them behind bars for up to three years, rather than a few months for comparable misdemeanor charges.
A Note on Fault and Hit and Run Auto Accidents
It’s worth noting that enhanced felony charges will also be filed against anyone accused of fleeing the scene after a car accident, but in this case, it does not actually matter who is at fault because hit and run is a felony in cases involving injuries regardless of who is at fault. Unfortunately, many people do not know this and harm their case by telling police they weren’t at fault, which can essentially serve as a confession. This is why you should always insist that police allow you to call your lawyer before you answer any of their questions after an auto accident, particularly in one that result in serious medical injuries.
So How do Police Decide Who Caused a Crash?
In some cases, it is easy to decide who is at fault in a car accident. If someone is rear ended while at a stoplight, if someone is struck by someone who ran a stop sign or, even more obvious, if someone runs into a parked car, it’s pretty easy to determine the driver’s liability. In most real life cases, it is more difficult for officers to decide the relative responsibility of each driver -even more so if both parties are pointing fingers.
When police first respond to an accident scene, they will usually check to see if anyone needs medical attention and call a fire crew or ambulance if necessary. They will clear the scene and try to ensure the safety of the drivers and themselves before they begin the investigation.
Police officers start their investigation by interviewing both parties and reviewing their driver’s license and vehicle registration. It’s important to mention that you do not need to speak with the police at this time and can insist on having an attorney present. If you are drunk or were otherwise driving in a questionable manner, this is a good idea, even if the officer attempts to claim that you’re only making things worse for yourself. Even if you insist on having an attorney though, you need to leave the vehicle when asked to do so, provide information regarding your identity and offer proof of your vehicle registration and your driver’s license at the officer’s request. If the officer believes you are intoxicated, the implied consent law also requires you to submit to a chemical test to evaluate your BAC.
Aside from talking to both parties, the officer will also interview any witnesses, which could include people in the vehicles as well as people outside the cars who saw the crash. He will likely also take pictures of the damage, any skidmarks and the location of the vehicles, particularly if they intend to issue a citation or make an arrest and believe this information could be useful in a legal case later. In some cases, particularly those involving criminal charges, officers may also ask nearby shops if they have any security footage of the incident.
The officer will determine fault in a car accident based on the location of the vehicles, where the impact occurred and the stories from those involved in the crash and any witnesses. In serious injury or death cases, the police also often call in a department trained accident reconstructionist to assess the cause of the accident. This analysis includes everything from skid marks to examining the suspect vehicle for any preexisting defects which may have contributed to the accident. The defense can also hire its own accident expert to examine the vehicle involved and all the evidence.
You Can and Should Fight the Official Report
Unfortunately, if police have evidence that someone was driving while drunk, high, distracted by a cell phone or driving in an otherwise dangerous or negligent manner, they are often inclined to assume that person is responsible. As a result, they may do the bare minimum investigation required by law, even if that’s not enough to actually properly establish fault on the part of the person suspected of breaking the law. This is why a good attorney will use all available resources to fully investigate the accident, interviewing witnesses, reviewing photographs of the scene, studying the toxicology report and verifying this information against the testimony of the officer and the other parties involved.
If your reckless or drunk driving is believed to have caused a car accident that resulted in injury or death in the state of California, Peter M. Liss can help. Please contact his offices at (760) 643-4050 to schedule a free initial consultation.