Q. Are there any circumstances where a driver could flee from the scene of an accident and not get in trouble?
A. Fleeing the scene of an accident usually involves a split-second decision where a driver's fear of getting caught colludes with his or her belief that he or she can "get away with it."
Conceivably, there may be circumstances where a hit-and-run accident will not rise to the level of violating Article 134 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
According to the Manual for Courts-Martial, fleeing the scene of an accident means the service member must be the driver of a vehicle involved in an accident. Additionally, the driver must know he or she was involved in the accident and must wrongfully leave the scene without assisting injured people or providing identifying information. Lastly, the fleeing must be prejudicial to good order and discipline or of a nature that brings discredit on the armed forces.
It's important to remember that this offense is primarily concerned with property other than the driver's vehicle, and injuries to third parties rather than the driver and his passenger.
The 1994 case of U.S. v. Littleton involved a Marine who pleaded guilty to, among other things, fleeing the scene of an accident.
The Marine, who lacked a valid license and was drunk, got into an accident while operating a borrowed car. He was speeding and being chased by police when he failed to negotiate a turn and hit a curb. With his car damaged, he fled on foot.
The Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals found the Marine's guilty plea to be improvident because the hit-and-run incident didn't injury anyone other than the driver nor did it damage to any property other than his own vehicle. Consequently, the court set aside and dismissed the guilty finding to the fleeing the scene charge.
Causing actual damage or injury is another important component to the Article 134 offense, as seen in the 2007 case of U.S. v. Holbrook which involved a Coast Guard seaman who bumped into the vehicle in front of his own.
Both vehicles were stopped at a stop light when the seaman's foot slipped off the break causing his vehicle to hit the other vehicle's rear at a speed of 1 mph. The seaman then backed up and, not seeing any damage to the other vehicle, drove away. While attempting to flee from the other vehicle, he crashed into a house. He later pleaded guilty to, among other things, fleeing the scene of an accident.
The Coast Guard Court of Criminal Appeals found this guilty plea to be improvident because there was no indication the other vehicle had been injured in the bumping incident. The court set aside the guilty finding for this charge.
Service members who charged with fleeing the scene of an accident should immediately consult with a military law attorney. Depending on the circumstances, a lawyer could show the government failed to prove the driver knew an accident had occurred, that no damage occurred other than to the driver's vehicle, or that only the driver or a passenger in his vehicle were injured in the accident.
Mathew B. Tully is an Iraq war veteran and founding partner of the law firm Tully Rinckey PLLC. Email questions to AskTheLawyerfedattorney.com. The information in this column is not intended as legal advice.