The way that leaving the scene of an accident charges are being handled in Pinellas County, Florida has changed over the last few years. I previously wrote an article titled “Guide to Leaving the Scene of an Accident Charges in Pinellas County.” While that article dealt with many common scenarios, it did not focus solely on what most people experience- a ticket or citation for a misdemeanor. These charges are made under either Florida Statute § 316.061(1) or Florida Statute § 316.063.
What Used to Happen on Leaving the Scene Charges in Pinellas County
For decades in Pinellas County, a ticket or citation for leaving the scene of an accident was not that big of a deal. First, law enforcement rarely issued the criminal version of the offense. If the case was a close call, the officer would either not issue a ticket or simply make it a civil infraction that wouldn’t even require a court appearance. Second, if a person was issued a criminal or misdemeanor citation, he or she would go to traffic court, a friendly judge would amend the charge to a civil infraction, and the person would pay a small fine. It was an easy process and low risk. There was no need to even hire a lawyer. But, things have changed.
What Happens Now in Pinellas County on Leaving the Scene of an Accident Cases
Law enforcement has increased their resources to investigate accidents. They have started specialized units of detectives to follow-up on leads. The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, St. Petersburg Police Department, Clearwater Police Department, Largo Police Department and Pinellas Park Police Department all use these specialized investigative divisions. But, the more significant change is that law enforcement has lost discretion about when and what to charge. They have essentially adopted a zero tolerance approach. This means that everyone gets cited with the misdemeanor version of the offense and hauled into court to answer the charge.
Which Courts Are Leaving the Scene of an Accident Charges Assigned To?
The charges are then assigned to two different traffic divisions depending on where the incident occurred. If the incident occurred in northern Pinellas County, the case is assigned to North County Traffic Court at 29582 U.S. Hwy 19 N. Clearwater, Fl 33761. Offense that occurred in southern Pinellas County used to be assigned to 1800 66th St. N. St. Petersburg, Fl. But, that courthouse closed in December 2018. As of January 1, 2019, South County Traffic Court is located in Courtroom 15 of the Pinellas County Justice Center at 14250 49th Street North Clearwater, Florida 33762.
How Do the Courts Handle Leaving the Scene of an Accident Charges?
As mentioned in the above, you can no longer walk into court without a lawyer and expect to walk out with the case being dismissed or amended to a civil infraction. The judges’ hands have now been tied. So, you have two options- plea to the misdemeanor and have it on your record or hire a lawyer.
How Do the Prosecutors Handle the Charges?
Every case must now be reviewed by an Assistant State Attorney. As a matter of course, the prosecutor will review the police reports, look at your driving record and call the other party involved in the accident. This is a new wrinkle on these files that criminal defense attorneys never had to deal with before on a regular basis. This has created more work and more risk. Obviously, most people who have been involved in an accident by you are not too eager to be lenient in their opinions about what should happen.
How to Defend Leaving the Scene of an Accident Charges?
I have developed a strategy which I believe gives my clients the best chance to get the charge dismissed or reduced. First, you should contact your insurance company and report the accident if you haven’t done so already. You do not have to admit fault or guilt, but simply tell them what happened and let them make a decision. Generally, if the property damage to the other vehicle is handled by insurance, that driver is less likely to want continued punishment of you. I follow-up with the prosecutor with proof of your insurance and any correspondence I can obtain verifying that the matter has been turned over to insurance. While restitution cannot be ordered for leaving the scene accidents, making sure the damage is addressed is important.
All cases come down to whether the person knew they had been in an accident or not. There is always an underlying suspicion that the reason why the accused left the scene was because they didn’t have a driver’s license. Therefore, I always provide proof of a valid license to support the position that there was no reason for my client to leave the scene.
In a surprisingly high number of cases, the other driver does not stop or stay at the scene. This puts people in an awkward position about whether they should call the police. Unfortunately, sometimes people report the incident once they get home or after they find out they are not covered for the damage by their insurance company. Because they called the police and you didn’t, you get the charge. In these cases, I explain the circumstances to the prosecutor and they usually understand.
Another defense is that even though you were in an accident, you did not realize it because the damage was so minimal. I have my clients document the damage to the vehicle with photos or even insurance repair estimates as long as the damage is minimal. Often, the damage is so slight that it is understandable why my client did not stay at the scene or call the police. Again, in these situations, I have found that the prosecutors can be reasonable.
There are many other defenses depending on the circumstances, but I have found that these techniques are generally enough to successfully defend the case against leaving the scene of an accident and get the intended result.
What Is the Likely Result of Hiring a Lawyer to Defend the Charge?
I have had excellent success over the years in getting the leaving the scene of an accident charge dismissed or amended to a civil infraction. It is certainly harder to get the case completely dismissed even with the best defense. I have yet to find a client who is not satisfied with getting the charge amended to a civil infraction. This infraction is called Failure to Report under Florida Statute § 316.065(1). The typical disposition that I negotiate is a withhold of adjudication (no conviction) and payment of a fine of $116 payable to the Pinellas County Clerk of Court. This result does not go on a permanent record and has no long term consequences for employment, school, and does not trigger a flag on background checks.
A final benefit is that my clients never have to go to court. I waive the court appearance that is set on the citation and then appear in court on their behalf thereafter. When it is time to resolve the case with a civil infraction, I can do that without the client being there. Many of my clients find court intimidating, scary, or just don’t have the time. Thus, not going to have to go to court is a very attractive benefit for them.
Contact a Local Criminal Defense Attorney
Misdemeanor leaving the scene of an accident charges in Pinellas County can have long term consequences, so it is important to consult with a criminal defense attorney. Just because the charge is given on a ticket or a citation and you don’t get arrested doesn’t mean that it isn’t serious.
I only practice law in Pinellas County. I strongly recommend that you hire a lawyer located in the county where you are charged. While there are excellent lawyers in other counties, the experience that is gained by only dealing with the prosecutor and the judge on a regular basis is invaluable. This familiarity increases your odds at success.
If you have been charged with a misdemeanor leaving the scene of an accident in Pinellas County by the Pinellas County Sherif’s Office, St. Petersburg PD, Pinellas Park PD, Largo PD, Clearwater PD, Florida Highway Patrol, or Indian Shores PD, please contact me immediately for a free consultation.