The Duty to Report “Reportable Accidents” and Collisions with Parked Vehicles

State law requires the driver of a vehicle involved in a reportable accident to immediately notify the appropriate law enforcement agency of the crash. G.S. 20-166.1. A reportable accident is a crash that results in (1) a person’s injury or death, (2) property damage of at least $1,000, or (3) property damage to a vehicle seized pursuant to G.S. 20-28.3 for forfeiture in an impaired driving case. G.S. 20-4.01(33b). A crash is any event that results in injury or property damage attributable directly to the motion of a motor vehicle or its load. G.S. 20-4.01(4b). The terms collision, accident, and crash, and their cognates, are synonymous. Id.

If the accident occurred in a city, the “appropriate law-enforcement agency” is the city police department. If the accident outside city limits, the appropriate agency is the State Highway Patrol or the sheriff’s office or other qualified rural police of the county where the accident occurred.

The appropriate law enforcement agency must investigate a reportable accident and make a written report within 24 hours of the accident. G.S. 20-166.1(e). Such reports are made on Division of Motor Vehicles form DMV-349 and must specify (1) the cause of the crash; (2) the conditions existing at the time of the crash; (3) the persons and vehicles involved; and (4) whether the vehicle has been seized and is subject to forfeiture under G.S. 20-28.2. G.S. 20-166.1(h). The report also must contain information on financial responsibility for the vehicle driven by the person whom the officer identified as at fault for the accident. G.S. 20-166.1(e).

If the officer writing the report is a member of the State Highway Patrol, the officer sends the report directly to DMV. Other officers submit accident reports to the local law enforcement agency for the area where the accident occurred, which in turn submit the report to DMV.

On occasion, drivers must report even those crashes that are not defined as “reportable.” A driver of a motor vehicle that collides with another motor vehicle left parked or unattended on a street, road, or highway must report the collision to the owner of the parked or unattended motor vehicle. G.S. 20-166.1(c). Despite what the nomenclature might suggest, this requirement applies to a crash that is not a reportable accident as well as to one that is. The report may be made orally or in writing, must be made within 48 hours of the accident, and must include:  (1) the time, date, and place of the accident; (2) the driver’s name, address, and drivers license number; and (3) the registration plate number of the vehicle being operated by the driver at the time of the accident. If the driver makes a written report to the owner of the parked or unattended vehicle and the report is not given to the owner at the scene of the accident, the report must be sent to the owner by certified mail, return receipt requested, and a copy of the report must be sent to DMV.

G.S. 20-166.1(i) specifies that an accident report made by a person who is not a law enforcement officer is solely for use by DMV and may not be used in any civil or criminal trial arising out of the accident. Moreover, reports made by persons who are not law enforcement officers or medical examiners (who must report deaths arising from reportable accidents) are not public records.

Defendants charged with motor vehicle offenses occasionally argue that G.S. 20-166.1(i) bars the admission at trial of testimony from an investigating law enforcement officer that the defendant identified herself as the driver at the scene of the accident. The argument is based on the notion that the defendant’s statement is a “report” made “by a person who is not a law enforcement officer.” The court of appeals’ opinion in State v. Hernandez, 188 N.C. App. 193 (2008), is frequently cited as support. In Hernandez, the passenger in single car crash was convicted of giving false information in violation of G.S. 20-279.31(b) based on her statement to the investigating officer that she was driving the vehicle when it crashed. The defendant-passenger argued that the State failed to present substantial evidence that she gave “information required in a report of a reportable accident, knowing or having reason to believe the information is false,” since her statements were oral and she made no written report. The court rejected that argument, concluding that G.S. 20-279.31 required only that the defendant (1) give information; (2) required in a report of a reportable accident; (3) knowing or having reason to believe the information was false. The court held that the passenger “gave information” when she told the investigating officer that she was the driver, the State’s evidence was sufficient to demonstrate that her co-defendant was driving, and the identity of the driver is information required in a report of a reportable accident; thus, the State’s evidence was sufficient to support the jury’s verdict.

I disagree with the notion that statements made by defendants and incorporated into accident reports are barred from admission at trial pursuant to G.S. 20-166.1(i). Moreover, I don’t view Hernandez as providing support for that proposition.

G.S. 20-166.1(h) requires DMV to provide “forms or procedures for submitting crash data to persons required to make reports [of accidents]” and requires that reports be “made in a format approved by the Commissioner [of DMV].” Thus, it seems pretty clear that the term “report” in G.S. 20-166.1(i) refers to written reports, not statements made at the scene of the accident—regardless of whether those statements may later be incorporated into an officer’s written report. As for Hernandez, the court recognized in that case that a defendant’s oral statements were distinguishable from an investigating officer’s written report recounting such statements.

As noted above, crash reports are public records. DMV may use the reports to compile statistical information on motor vehicle accidents. Folks curious about the contents of such reports can view accident reports for my home city, Raleigh, here.