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Old Yesterday, 10:42 AM   #1
SFCTaleSpinner
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Legal Question - Car Accident

I want to get the legal repercussions of a car accident right for a story.

It's a single-car accident; car comes off the road and hits a tree (though if need be, I can change this to anything else - boulder, power pole, guard rail, etc.). Nobody is seriously injured, though that is due to sheer dumb luck. It could've very easily been fatal and it's regarded as miraculous that nobody was seriously hurt. The car is a right-off. The driver was speeding, and not just by a couple mph., either.

I'm intending this to take place in a rural county somewhere in the south-east; the Carolinas, Georgia, or Florida. I'm expecting the driver to attract some scorn simply for being a yuppie out-of-towner. My intention is for him to be put in a holding cell overnight until he can be taken before the judge the following morning. But beyond that, I'm relying mainly on guess work and Hollywood depictions of 'southern justice', which I'm sure have all toned up the hillbilly factor for comedic or horrifying effect.

I'd imagine that the initial court appearance would be an arraignment; my character would plead guilty to reckless driving (the correct charge?); and that he'd subsequently be sentenced on the spot to a hefty fine and probation.

Story-wise, my ideal situation is that he is free to leave both the court house and the county that same morning, and that he is spared any jail time. If he has to report back to the local sheriff or court house a couple weeks later for another hearing or community service, I don't mind. But I ideally need him free for the couple weeks immediately following the accident.

I'd appreciate insight from anyone with an understanding of motor vehicle law; and in particular, anyone who knows how the southern justice system realistically handles these matters.

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Old Yesterday, 11:21 AM   #2
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For a general motor vehicle infraction, a driver from out of State would be required to post bail rather than go to jail. The cops just take you downtown and you see a magistrate who sets the bail. There is always a magistrate on call for this. He may not be physically present, but they WILL call him and he will make the order. Pay the bail and you're free on your own recognizance. Fail to show up at the hearing and the bail is your fine for the offense.

From there, a misdemeanor/felony will require a hearing within 72 hours. Bail is set, you post a bond with a bailbondsman and check out of the hotel. Can't pay the bail? Sit in your cell until the next opportunity. There's no real need to outline the actual hearing because it's mostly a quick moving series of droning from the DA about reading the charges, or waving that reading, for each customer. Misdemeanors/felonies require that there be actual FACTS that constitute lawbreaking. A car wreck doesn't qualify on it's own. You need facts outside the wreck, other than mere excessive speed, for it to fall in this zone. DUI, drag racing, moonshine running, etc. Gross negligence won't qualify on it's own unless someone got badly hurt. Gross negligence is an additional charge to the underlying offense. Reckless driving is an infraction and won't support a gross negligence enhancement.

Based on your description, what you want/need isn't the legaleze. What you want/need are the machinations that the cops go through. The field sobriety test, the hospital visit for the blood draw, the breathalyzer, and so on. The courtroom legal aspect is boring when written as it unfolds because making motions, or opposing them, is based on precedent and laws. There is nothing exciting about it other than it's quick moving and uses a lot of verbal legal shorthand specific to the courtroom. Wave the reading. Wave time. Ready. Bail is set to the schedule of... And so on. Courtrooms are usually packed and start to smell of warm bodies and lack of deodorant. Anyone who's in a cell waiting for a hearing better have had cash in their wallet when arrested. Otherwise you don't get a toothbrush to use in the morning. Bad breath is common and your attorney is not allowed to even give you a breath mint! He has to suffer through it multiple times every morning if he represents more than 1 client at each hearing. It can get rank.

Did you know you can go watch the actual process? As a member of the public you have the privilege of going to any open courtroom and watching what goes on. You can't record anything but you can take notes and observe. Almost no one does this and it baffles me why more don't. There's no fee or reservation required, just go and sit in a courtroom and observe. It's your right. At least it is in the USA, other countries may vary. Everyone should do this, you'd be surprised at what you can learn.
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Old Yesterday, 11:28 AM   #3
NotWise
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Quote:
Originally Posted by SFCTaleSpinner View Post
I want to get the legal repercussions of a car accident right for a story.
Why would the car accident trigger any legal action? Wouldn't the police have to witness the accident to establish a charge?
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Old Yesterday, 11:49 AM   #4
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Quote:
Originally Posted by NotWise View Post
Why would the car accident trigger any legal action? Wouldn't the police have to witness the accident to establish a charge?
I agree. Unless:

1. The driver was caught by a speed camera before the accident. But that would be a different offence.

2. Public property was damaged but any damage to property would be paid by the driver's insurance.

3. The driver was seen to be drunk.

Normally a vehicle accident that only involves damage to the vehicle and something else would be settled by the insurers. The passengers' injuries would also be covered. The situation as stated in the first post wouldn't seem to involve the Police or the law at all. There would need to be proof that the driver did something else wrong - proof that could stand up in court.
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Old Yesterday, 11:57 AM   #5
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Gee the exact same thing happened to me...not a bad accident, I could still drive the car and no damage to property. The cops came. Looked around. Told my they were sorry my car was damaged and drove away after asking if I was all right. No tickets issued.

Now if I had hit another car, and fault could be placed on me, the only thing that would have happened is a ticket would have been issued. Unless someone was killed then charges of vehicular homicide would have been made. Then you go to jail.

Take it from me...not only was I involved it a similar accident, but I was a cop for many years.
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Old Yesterday, 12:29 PM   #6
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Quote:
Originally Posted by HisArpy View Post
For a general motor vehicle infraction, a driver from out of State would be required to post bail rather than go to jail. The cops just take you downtown and you see a magistrate who sets the bail. There is always a magistrate on call for this. He may not be physically present, but they WILL call him and he will make the order.
My thinking is that this is the kind of county where the judge's office informs the sheriff that the judge is "out fishin'" and the sheriff isn't too fussed about disturbing the judge - who just happens to be his brother-in-law; so they decide to hold the driver until tomorrow when the judge isn't indisposed.

Most of your descriptions (which are very informative, BTW) seemed to be discussing the letter of the law. But I'm thinking more about reality, where the procedures might be more slack and the sheriff might exercise a tad more discretion than he is legally entitled to, but nobody argues with him because he's the kind of top dog nobody ever argues with.

That being said, I don't want to write a scenario that's ridiculously heavy-handed. I'm okay with readers saying, "Well, legally he shouldn't be able to do that, but I can see one of these southern tough guys giving the guy a hard time." But I'm not okay with them saying, "Oh, that is bullshit! There is no way in hell they would do that to him, just for a car crash!"

Quote:
Originally Posted by HisArpy View Post
Based on your description, what you want/need isn't the legaleze.
Quite right. But I can't just forget about the matter. I need to be able to say what the outcome was. For me, this could be as simple as a back and forth on the courthouse steps:

"So, what did you get?"

"$3000 fine and a reckless driving conviction on my record."

Quote:
Originally Posted by HisArpy View Post
Did you know you can go watch the actual process? As a member of the public you have the privilege of going to any open courtroom and watching what goes on. You can't record anything but you can take notes and observe. Almost no one does this and it baffles me why more don't. There's no fee or reservation required, just go and sit in a courtroom and observe. It's your right. At least it is in the USA, other countries may vary. Everyone should do this, you'd be surprised at what you can learn.
Yeah, I did know this. But it wouldn't give me insight into the regional foibles of the system in different areas. What kind of crap do the small-town courts get away with that I'd never see in the suburbs? They also typically wouldn't explain what the defendant's been through immediately preceding the trial. Is he coming directly from a holding cell? Or was he walking the street free ten minutes ago? Hence some of my questions here.

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Why would the car accident trigger any legal action? Wouldn't the police have to witness the accident to establish a charge?
Well, if we're talking about beyond-reasonable-doubt proof of a crime, there would be skid marks left behind that advanced forensics could prove the car was going well over the limit.

But I imagine the actual scenario to be that the local cops know this road like the back of their hands and they are dead certain that the only possible way a car could end up where it did is if the driver was going well above the speed limit.

Also, I imagine that the driver will be in such a state of shock/guilt that he'll admit to them that he was speeding, and even if he doesn't, the passengers he nearly killed might call him out in front of the cops.
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Old Yesterday, 02:28 PM   #7
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Quote:
Originally Posted by oggbashan View Post
I agree. Unless:
...
3. The driver was seen to be drunk.
Man, that's sort of messed up. Speeding is irresponsible and known to cause fatalities. Drunk driving is irresponsible and known to cause fatalities. Have a non-fatal wreck because you were speeding? No problem! Have a non-fatal wreck because you were drunk? Now we're gonna throw the book at you!

I'm not saying I doubt your take on the law. I'm just saying that the law's sort of messed up.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Zeb_Carter View Post
Gee the exact same thing happened to me...not a bad accident, I could still drive the car and no damage to property. The cops came. Looked around. Told my they were sorry my car was damaged and drove away after asking if I was all right. No tickets issued.

Now if I had hit another car, and fault could be placed on me, the only thing that would have happened is a ticket would have been issued. Unless someone was killed then charges of vehicular homicide would have been made. Then you go to jail.

Take it from me...not only was I involved it a similar accident, but I was a cop for many years.
Well, I certainly can't argue with that level of expertise!
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Old Yesterday, 02:46 PM   #8
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Quote:
Originally Posted by SFCTaleSpinner View Post
The car is a right-off.
Side note: "write-off". (I don't usually nitpick spelling in posts, but assuming you're going to use that expression in the story, better to spell it "write".)
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Old Yesterday, 03:25 PM   #9
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Quote:
Originally Posted by SFCTaleSpinner View Post
Man, that's sort of messed up. Speeding is irresponsible and known to cause fatalities. Drunk driving is irresponsible and known to cause fatalities. Have a non-fatal wreck because you were speeding? No problem! Have a non-fatal wreck because you were drunk? Now we're gonna throw the book at you!

I'm not saying I doubt your take on the law. I'm just saying that the law's sort of messed up.
...
An accident with no other vehicle involved? The police aren't interested.

For your story to work there HAS to be another factor that would lead to prosecution.
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Old Yesterday, 03:38 PM   #10
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I concur in regard to a single vehicle accident where no property damage is involved. A simple fix would be that instead of smashing a boulder or guard rail...he smashes into the living room of the sheriffs cousin. No injuries, but a big mess. (I happen to know someone who had this happen to them...they live on a notorious curve on a country road)

Now you have a real legal situation to deal with.
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Old Yesterday, 03:44 PM   #11
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Quote:
Originally Posted by SFCTaleSpinner View Post
My thinking is that this is the kind of county where the judge's office informs the sheriff that the judge is "out fishin'" and the sheriff isn't too fussed about disturbing the judge - who just happens to be his brother-in-law; so they decide to hold the driver until tomorrow when the judge isn't indisposed.

Most of your descriptions (which are very informative, BTW) seemed to be discussing the letter of the law. But I'm thinking more about reality, where the procedures might be more slack and the sheriff might exercise a tad more discretion than he is legally entitled to, but nobody argues with him because he's the kind of top dog nobody ever argues with.

That being said, I don't want to write a scenario that's ridiculously heavy-handed. I'm okay with readers saying, "Well, legally he shouldn't be able to do that, but I can see one of these southern tough guys giving the guy a hard time." But I'm not okay with them saying, "Oh, that is bullshit! There is no way in hell they would do that to him, just for a car crash!"
In a lot of smaller rural southern counties, the Magistrate (not "judge") is often elsewhere. Either in court doing a warrant request hearing or he really is out "fishin" with his brother the Sheriff. The staff know this and there's a set schedule of the amount of fines for the various traffic offenses. Anything not on the schedule (anything that's not an infraction) means you sit in a cell until your bail hearing.

As far as your story goes, everyone knows that Southern Justice isn't without it's corrupt Sheriff's and Magistrates. Write it that way and be clear that it's not the usual model. No one will complain that it's heavy handed - it's Southern Justice, it's ALWAYS heavy handed.
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Old Yesterday, 04:46 PM   #12
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Justice a bit further south: We were driving northward along Mexico's Gulf coast in Campeche state on a Friday afternoon. Municipio (county) cops saw our California plates and pulled us over for speeding (which we weren't). Oh no, not just a ticket -- you must see the magistrate, but he won't be in till Monday. So give us your USA driver's license. Or sit in jail all weekend. Or maybe we can work this out? 200 pesos (US$14) got us away from there.

Mexico has a very simplified traffic-court system compared to USA. Here, you get a ticket, then post bail, then cough up your fine, all to pay the cops and clerks and judges. There, you skip the middlepersons and just pay the workers (cops) directly. Simple. I'll bet some USA Southern states might host similar simplicity. Just don't make the offer; await the shake-down.

If there had been a wreck in Mexico, it could get grim. When the cops show up, they tend to throw everyone nearby in jail for a few months till things get worked out. So everyone tries to leave before any cops arrive. This is frowned upon in the states. Oy.

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Old Yesterday, 05:31 PM   #13
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When I was in Korea, I was told, if you where taking a Korean Taxi somewhere and there was an accident, throw the agreed upon price of the fare on the seat and scoot. Don't wait around for the cops, just leave as fast as you can. If you stuck around you would be responsible for the the damage to both vehicles. Crazy shit in Korea.
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Old Yesterday, 05:40 PM   #14
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In early 1950s Spain my father's car was stopped by the Guardia Civil, then a semi-military arm of Franco's Fascist state.

Although they had stepped out in front of the car they claimed a rear light was defective (in Spanish noon-day sun!). My father knew what to do and what would happen if he didn't.

He paid them ten pesetas.

If he hadn't? A rifle butt would have ensured that his headlight was defective, he would have been taken to the Guardia post, and fined 100 pesetas.
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Old Yesterday, 06:36 PM   #15
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Quote:
Originally Posted by oggbashan View Post
.

Normally a vehicle accident that only involves damage to the vehicle and something else would be settled by the insurers. The passengers' injuries would also be covered. The situation as stated in the first post wouldn't seem to involve the Police or the law at all. There would need to be proof that the driver did something else wrong - proof that could stand up in court.
You might consider the Insurance stuff as well, perhaps
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Old Yesterday, 08:53 PM   #16
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Why would the car accident trigger any legal action? Wouldn't the police have to witness the accident to establish a charge?
Agreed. Happened to me in Virginia...gf took a turn too fast and skidded off the road into a tree. Checked out and cleared by a hospital and no charges no ticket.

So, SFCTaleSpinner, one option is to have the guy somehow insult the officer who then goes about what you want because hes pissed...can even have him put on a Buford T Justice act for flavor for the uppity yuppie yankee.
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