Courts often wrestle with how many charges may be brought against an accused for a given incident or course of conduct. Here’s the question the court of appeal faced in People v. Newton, case no. G037968 (4th Dist. Sept. 27, 2007):
The issue before us appears to be one of first impression: where an accident results in injury to more than one person, and the person causing the accident flees the scene, is there a single violation of section 20001 [hit and run] or are there multiple violations?
The answer seemed pretty obvious to me. The driver hit once and ran once, regardless of how many people were injured in the collision. The court agrees, as Supreme Court precedent seems pretty clear:
Wilkoff [v. Superior Court (1985) 38 Cal.3d 345] teaches that “a charge of multiple counts of violating a statute is appropriate only where the actus reus prohibited by the statute—the gravamen of the offense—has been committed more than once. The act prohibited by section 23153 is the act of driving a vehicle while intoxicated and, when so driving, violating any law relating to the driving of a vehicle. . . . [T]he number of times the act is committed determines the number of times the statute is violated . . . .”
But the question is actually a little more difficult than that. Because the statute requires a driver involved in an accident to stop and render assistance to “any person injured in the accident,” the prosecution argued that the statute contemplates more than one violation of the statute when more than one person is injured. The court practically notes that this argument leads to absurdity:
Were we to follow the prosecution’s interpretation of Bailey to its logical conclusion there would be even more counts than the four it urges: defendant allegedly failed to (1) stop, (2) identify himself, (3) render aid to one victim, (4) render aid to a second victim, (5) render aid to a third victim, and (6) render aid to a fourth victim. Even the prosecution does not parse the statute so as to enable it to charge defendant with six separate crimes.
So the defense wins on 1 hit, 1 run, and no errors. Now it’s back to the trial court to play ball.