Last year the Denver Police Department rolled out a program designed to catch more hit and run offenders by enlisting the help of local auto body shops. The voluntary program involves shop owners signing up for alerts that describe suspected vehicles, with the hope that the shop owners will recognize a vehicle in their shop before the suspect has had a chance to repair away the evidence of the hit and run.
Though not perfect, this program can only help police investigation of hit and run accidents, and should remind those who have left the scene of an accident of one cardinal rule: if you’re in a hole, stop digging. Efforts at concealment of a crime, or destruction or tampering with the evidence of one, could lead to additional charges. Perhaps even more importantly, such efforts at concealment will certainly be held against a defendant by the prosecutor and the judge, leading to harsher sentences. This is critical, as there is a wide range of sentencing outcomes even in serious hit and run cases, from misdemeanor convictions with probation, to felony convictions and years in prison. So many factors affect a sentence in any one case, but after-the-fact concealment and tampering with evidence are clear aggravating factors. A moment of desperate panic that causes a person to leave the scene of an accident, while not laudable, is an all too human mistake. But when a person continues digging a hole, by fixing or concealing the evidence of the hit and run, the justice system will be far less understanding. If you’ve made such a mistake and are in a hole, stop digging– call a lawyer.
The auto body alert program certainly increases the likelihood of being caught trying to conceal a hit and run. How much it does so is hard to say. First of all, the program is voluntary, not mandatory. Shop owners have to sign up for the alerts. And for those that do sign up for alerts, nothing requires the shop owners to compare every vehicle against the alerts. But the program at least gives the tools to conscientious shop owners to keep an eye out for suspect vehicles.
One smart aspect of the program is that alerts are only sent for cases involving serious injury or death. Those are the most important cases, of course. And by limiting the number of alerts going out, the program avoids inundating and fatiguing auto body shop owners with less important information. Much like Amber Alert, which has stringent alert criteria, the program’s design acknowledges that an alert system used sparingly is more likely to be effective. The more actionable an alert is (with better descriptive information and easier-to-recognize damage), and the more meaningful it is (having involved a serious injury as opposed to a fender bender), the more motivated the auto body shops will be to consider and heed the alerts.
Auto body shop enrollment in this program is likely motivated by a desire to do the right thing. That said, there are some interesting financial incentives involved, whether or not they are consciously considered. On the one hand, a shop owner who discovers a customer is trying to conceal a hit and run will have lost a customer. On the other hand, by improving enforcement of hit and run accidents, more insurance coverage will generally be made available to pay for medical bills, pain and suffering, and of course vehicle repair. Hit and run victims generally rely on their own collision coverage, medical payment coverage, and uninsured motorist coverage to compensate them for their losses. But none of those coverages is mandatory under Colorado law, and so many victims of hit and run are unfortunately out of luck. Increased enforcement of hit and run leads to more victims being able to rely on the offender’s liability insurance, which is mandatory in Colorado (though compliance with the law is not perfect). In a real sense, increased enforcement of hit and run laws will help auto body shop owners’ business, by having more insurance money available for repairs.
Whether you’re a victim of hit and run needing help to address your injuries, or a driver who left an accident and is facing trouble, a lawyer can help.