NEW YORK, NY (March 24) – You're driving up Sixth Avenue at night in Manhattan. You see a rare opportunity to make some time as one traffic light after another begins changing from red to green in perfect sequence. You press down hard on the accelerator as your vehicle picks up speed with each passing second. Then, before your foot can reach the brake pedal, a man carrying a briefcase is suddenly standing right in front of you, as if from out of nowhere. You hear a sickening thud. It all happens so fast, so unexpectedly. Now what? Do you stop and call for help? Or, do you leave the scene of the accident as fast as you can, hoping no one saw your car strike the unfortunate pedestrian who is now lying motionless in the street?
According to Steve Brill, a New York criminal defense lawyer, in cases involving serious pedestrian knockdowns it is not at all uncommon for the driver, in a moment of panic, to think that if they can escape without being identified, it might be possible to avoid facing what they fear are dire legal and financial consequences.
In 2007, hit-and-run drivers killed 38 people in New York City, and 17 of those cases were never solved.
"Unless the driver believes that remaining at the scene may jeopardize his or her own safety," Brill strongly advises, "the driver should never leave the scene of an accident. They should stop their car and call the police immediately. Then I strongly suggest the next call they make should be to an attorney."
Leaving the scene of an accident is the event that triggers potential criminal charges and exposes the driver to longer jail time and license sanctions.
"With the popularity of cell phones with built-in cameras," Brill said, "drivers involved in a pedestrian knockdown are almost always identified by someone. In the past, far more hit-and-run drivers got away with it. But that is very rarely the case anymore."
Brill explained that the degree of the crime and severity of the penalties for leaving the scene of an accident almost always depends on the condition of the driver and the facts surrounding the incident.
"For example, if someone leaves the scene of an accident where only property is damaged," Brill said, "the driver could be arrested on a minor misdemeanor charge."
"On the other hand," he continued, "if it is alleged that the driver was drunk, or driving recklessly and someone is injured, or killed, the potential penalties and license sanctions will be the most severe."
As a New York criminal defense lawyer, Brill has seen hit-and-run cases where the District Attorney's office went so far as to charge the driver with second-degree murder based on allegations of 'depraved indifference' to human life. "In each of these situations," Brill said, "the driver was accused of driving drunk and causing an accident that killed someone."
Brill further explained that in pedestrian knockdown accidents involving serious injury, or death, part of the investigation done by the NYPD will include efforts to determine whether to charge the driver with criminal behavior.
"I get calls from people all the time," Brill said. "They have just hit someone with their car and don't know what to do next. When I get these calls, I always advise the person not to say anything to the police, or the DA's office, or to any law enforcement official, until I get there. "If not," he said, "the driver risks making a statement that could be incriminating.
"While we are unable to advise a client to run from the scene," he added, "we have advised clients to exercise their 5th amendment right to remain silent and not volunteer any information. If the NYPD wants to make an arrest, that is their prerogative. But our clients do not have to make their job any easier."