Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Motorist Can Leave Accident Scene after Spending Reasonable Time Waiting for Police

Image of drivers exchanging information following a car accident (monkeybusinessimages/iStock)

Image of drivers exchanging information following a car accident (monkeybusinessimages/iStock)

Ohio law does not require a driver to remain at the scene of an accident if the driver is unaware that the police have been or will be called to the accident scene as long as the driver provides the required contact information to the operators or owners of other involved vehicles and to any person injured in the accident, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled today.

A Supreme Court majority  reversed a First District Appeals Court decision that found a Hamilton County man guilty of leaving the scene of an accident an hour after it occurred. The Court found that under R.C. 4549.02 motorists involved in accidents are expected to wait a reasonable amount of time after police have been notified.

Writing for the Court majority, Justice Judith L. French stated that Ohio law does not require all motor vehicle accidents be reported to police, and the current statute is unclear how long a driver must wait when a police officer is not at the scene of the accident.

The Court vacated Michael Bryant’s conviction for leaving the scene of an accident.

Justices Patrick F. Fischer, R. Patrick DeWine, Michael P. Donnelly, and Melody J. Stewart joined Justice French’s opinion. Justice Sharon L. Kennedy concurred in judgment only.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor dissented, stating a trial court must determine by the “totality of the circumstances” whether a person illegally left the scene of an accident, and in this case, the trial court could reasonably have concluded that the totality of the circumstances indicated that Bryant believed the police would be called when he left the scene.  His departure from the scene violated the statute, she concluded.

Driver Asks for No Report of Late-Night Accident
In March 2017, Elanor Everhardt, who was 20 years old, was driving with her 16-year-old sister when Bryant hit Everhardt’s car as he attempted to pass on the left. It was around 11 p.m., and the two drivers pulled into a nearby parking lot and got out of their vehicles. Everhardt’s sister remained in the car, and Everhardt told her sister to call the police, but because of a miscommunication, the sister did not call.

Everhardt would later testify that Bryant was stumbling, smelled of alcohol. and was unaware that he had been in an accident. The two talked in the parking lot for about an hour. Bryant told Everhardt he did not have a driver’s license. He gave her his full name and phone number, and let her take a photo of his state ID card. He also was aware that she took a picture of his license plate number.

Bryant told Everhardt he had been drinking, and that he was a drug dealer and had drugs with him. He offered her money not to call the police, but she refused. After the lengthy conversation, she got in her car. She then called a tow truck and the police.

Driver Gone When Police Arrive
The Court’s opinion stated the record is unclear if Bryant left the parking lot before or after Everhardt called the police. Driving with two flat tires, Bryant left before the police arrived, but there was no evidence presented in the case to determine if Bryant knew Everhardt had or was going to call the police, or evidence that Everhardt definitely told Bryant she was not going to call.

When the officer arrived, Everhardt gave him some information to identify Bryant. The officer charged Bryant with failure to control his vehicle, driving under a license suspension, and leaving the scene of an accident. After a bench trial, Bryant was found guilty of failure to control and leaving the scene. The trial court stayed Bryant’s sentences pending appeal.

The trial court concluded Bryant violated the leaving-the-scene law, R.C. 4549.02(A)(1), because he did not provide Everhardt with the “registered number” of his vehicle. Bryant appealed his conviction to the First District, which found he violated the law for another reason — not providing the required information to a police officer “at the scene of the accident.”

Bryant appealed to the Supreme Court, which agreed to consider a vehicle operator’s duty to give information to a police officer at the scene and the meaning of a vehicle’s “registered number.”

Court Examines Driver’s Duty under Law
R.C. 4549.02(A)(1) states that when there is a motor vehicle collision or accident on a public road, the vehicle operators with knowledge of the accident must stop at the scene. A vehicle operator must remain at the scene until the operator gives the operator’s name and address and the “registered number” of the motor vehicle to all of the persons injured; to the owner, operator, or attendant of any vehicle damaged; and the police officer at the scene.

Bryant argued because there was no officer at the scene an hour after it happened and without any knowledge that Everhardt was going to call the police, he was not required to wait for an officer to arrive. The Cincinnati City Prosecutor’s Office argued an officer arrived in a reasonable amount of time, and Bryant was required to provide the  information to the officer.

To resolve the dispute, Justice French explained the Court needed to read R.C. 4549.02(A)(1) in context with the rest of the statute. The opinion noted that R.C. 4549.02(A)(2) states that if an injured person is unable to comprehend and record the required information, the other operator involved in the accident must notify the nearest police authority and remain at the scene until a police officer arrives. 

If R.C. 4549.02(A)(1) required a driver to stay until the police arrived, there would be no need to specify in R.C. 4549.02(A)(2) the need to stay, the Court majority stated. The General Assembly could have imposed the duty to wait in R.C. 4549.02(A)(1), but it chose not to, the opinion noted.

The opinion indicated that both Bryant and the city prosecutor agreed that, had Everhardt called the police or told Bryant she was calling the police, he would have had an obligation to wait a reasonable amount of time for the police to arrive and that he would have had to provide the information to the officer. But because there is no obligation to call the police after every motor-vehicle accident, and no obligation for police to respond to every accident, a driver does not violate the law for not providing the information to a police officer when the driver gives the information to the owner or operator of any damaged vehicle and to any injured person but then leaves the scene without knowledge that the police have been alerted of the accident.

The Court found Bryant followed the law by giving the required information to Everhardt.

Vehicle’s Registered Number Clarified
The city maintained that the “registered number” of a motor vehicle is different than the license plate number and that Bryant left the scene without giving Everhardt the right number. The Court found the term “registered number” ambiguous and searched other portions of state law for a meaning. Citing the Ohio Department of Public Safety’s “Digest of Ohio Motor Vehicle Laws,” the Court determined that a license plate number is the “registered number” of a vehicle for the purposes of exchanging information after an accident. Because Everhardt was able to take a photo of Bryant’s license plate, that met the requirement of the law, the Court concluded.

Dissent Finds Driver Intended to Avoid Police
A driver violates the leaving-the-scene law when the circumstances indicate an officer is likely to be notified of an accident, and the driver does not wait, Chief Justice O’Connor stated in her dissent.

The law does not exactly detail what a driver must do, and looking at the totality of the circumstances is appropriate in part because doing so ensures the statute is flexible enough to apply to many different circumstances, the dissent explained. Drivers in an accident might agree not to call the police, or if the response time is too long, might mutually agree to leave. In all cases, whether a driver remained at the scene for a reasonable amount of time is determined by the totality of the circumstances, the chief justice wrote.

Here, the totality of the circumstances supported a finding by the trial court that Bryant did not comply with his obligation to remain at the scene for an officer to arrive.  In particular, the dissent stated a reasonable fact-finder could have concluded that, when Everhardt returned to her car and Bryant left the scene, Bryant believed she would be calling the police.  Everhardt left her phone in the car and told her sister to call the police, which indicated she intended to call the police. Bryant also spent an hour trying to convince Everhardt not to call the police, but he received no assurance she would not do so.  At one point, Everhardt even told him she wanted to call. 

Finally, “the fact that Bryant drove away on two flat tires – which made his car unsafe to drive and created a risk to his safety and the safety of anyone on the road at that time – suggests that he believed the police would arrive soon and that his desire to avoid interacting with the police was strong,” the chief justice wrote.

2018-1418. State v. Bryant, Slip Opinion No. 2020-Ohio-1041.

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Please note: Opinion summaries are prepared by the Office of Public Information for the general public and news media. Opinion summaries are not prepared for every opinion, but only for noteworthy cases. Opinion summaries are not to be considered as official headnotes or syllabi of court opinions. The full text of this and other court opinions are available online.

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