If you've been involved in an auto accident that caused personal injury or property damage to another individual while attempting to text or make a phone call, you may have already received a citation at the scene. However, such a citation may not absolve you from criminal liability -- you could still be charged with a misdemeanor (or felony, if the injury or damage is severe). Read on to learn more about how many states treat texting while driving, as well as what you can do to protect yourself after you've been in an at-fault accident.
When can you be arrested for texting while driving?
There currently exist no federal laws implementing criminal penalties for texting while driving. However, many states and municipalities have enacted specific laws governing this behavior, with penalties ranging from a fine to points on your license to even community service.
If you've been involved in an at-fault accident that caused significant damage or injury, your actions may fall under your state's reckless driving laws, which can include criminal charges and penalties. For cases in which the injuries caused resulted in death, you may even find yourself facing a charge of reckless homicide or involuntary manslaughter.
What should you do to defend yourself?
In many cases, it make take some time for law enforcement officials to investigate an accident and determine fault, as well as for prosecutors or district attorneys to evaluate whether they wish to file criminal charges. Even if you've not yet been charged with a crime, you may want to begin preparing your defense.
You'll first likely want to consult with a criminal defense attorney for advice. Your attorney can help you evaluate your options, as well as give you tips and pointers for dealing with your insurance company (as some statements or actions may later be deemed an admission of fault). Your attorney will also be able to contact the prosecutor to inquire whether he or she plans to file charges, and apply some pressure if the prosecutor seems to be stalling in making a decision.
If charges are filed, your attorney will work with you to create your defense. Whether you're arguing that the other driver was equally negligent (and bears responsibility for his or her own injuries) or that you were not actually texting while driving, your attorney will help you gather evidence in support of this defense, as well as continue to negotiate an outcome with the prosecutor. In some situations, you may be able to plead guilty to a lesser charge and receive no jail time, or take part in a deferral program that will eventually expunge the arrest and guilty plea from your record if you avoid similar charges in the future.
What other consequences may you face?
It's important to note that even if you are not criminally charged for causing property damage or injury to another person if you are texting while driving, you may still be subject to a civil lawsuit from the property owner or injured person.
Your auto insurance company should pay an amount to the injured party to help pay any medical bills, fix his or her vehicle, or pay other costs incurred as a result of the accident. However, in some cases, the damage may exceed your insurance limits, giving rise to a legal demand by the injured party that you pay any remaining expenses out of pocket.
Your criminal defense attorney may defend you against this lawsuit as well, or could refer you to a civil attorney with experience in insurance and liability defense. Either way, you should be assured that you'll be ably represented and be able to present the best case possible.
Be sure that you retain any evidence gathered by you and your attorney in the defense of your case until the statute of limitations for a civil action has expired. The statute of limitations is a state law that governs the time limits within which you must file a certain type of case. Most states have set a statute of limitations for personal injury or property damage claims at between 1 and 10 years, with the majority of states requiring these actions be brought within 2 to 6 years after the event has taken place.
So for example, if the accident took place 2 years ago, and your state's statute of limitations on property damage claims is 6 years, you should keep any supporting documentation for at least 4 more years before throwing it out.