Court Mulls Knowledge Requirement in Criminal Charge for Fleeing Car Accident Scene – Dorsett v. State

In Dorsett v. State, the Fourth District Court of Appeal of Florida takes on an interesting question related to criminal liability for a Florida car accident: Whether prosecutors must prove that a defendant was aware that an accident occurred before the person can be convicted of leaving the scene of a crash involving injury.

Zacariah Dorsett was driving a heavy pickup truck southbound on A1A near Ft. Lauderdale. He stopped at an intersection after seeing a number of people run across the street as it had just begun to rain. According to Dorsett, he had his windows rolled up, the air conditioning on and the windshield wipers going. He was also listening to the car stereo at full volume. As a result, Dorsett said he did not realize that a young teenager had lost control of his skateboard and fell as he crossed the road, hitting the truck’s passenger side undercarriage when Dorsett continued through the intersection.

Dorsett was stopped by police officers about three miles from the accident. One of two officers conducting the stop later testified that Dorsett appeared very nervous and visibly shaking and stuttering at the time. Although he told the cops that he didn’t know that he had hit someone, Dorsett was nevertheless charged with leaving the scene of a crash involving injury.

At trial, the prosecution explained that the young man who fell off his skateboard had been run over by the truck and dragged 90 feet. Although there was no physical damage to the truck, witnesses testified that they both saw and heard the collision. One witness in particular said she “heard a loud thud and the sound of cracking wood” from 75 to 100 yards away, according to the court.

At the close of evidence, the trial court denied Dorsett’s request for two special jury instructions explaining that “Defendant’s knowledge that his car caused the personal injuries to [the victim] is a necessary element of the offense of failing to remain at the scene of an accident under Florida Statute Section 316.027.” Instead, the trial court provided a standard instruction that did not include this language. A jury found Dorsett guilty and the trial court sentenced him to two years in prison.

The Fourth District reversed the decision on appeal, ruling that the lower court erred in failing to provide the special jury instruction. The court explained that Section 316.027 makes it a crime to willfully leave the scene of an accident that results in an injury, but does not expressly state whether a person must be aware of the accident in order to violate the law. In its 1995 decision in Mancuso v. State, however, the Florida Supreme Court explained that a person can’t willfully leave an injury-causing accident without first knowing that it an injury happened.

In Mancuso, according to the Fourth District, the Supreme Court specifically addressed a driver’s knowledge that an injury occurred, rather than of the accident itself. As a result, the appeals court certified the question of whether the driver must also be aware of the accident for resolution by the state’s highest court. “We now request the court to focus on the knowledge requirement as it relates to the accident itself,” the Fourth District wrote.

Although this case bears on criminal responsibility for an accident, the issues raised here may also bear on the question of civil liability in a Florida car accident case. At Anidjar & Levine, our South Florida car accident attorneys represent clients injured in auto accidents throughout the region, including in Fort Lauderdale, Hollywood and Pompano Beach. We are happy to discuss your potential claim in a free initial consultation.

Related blog posts:

Court Reverses Criminal Conviction for Driver in Deadly Florida Car Accident – Rubinger v. State

Florida Court Says Automaker May be Liable for Single-Car Accident – Rooker v. Ford Motor Company

Comparative Negligence Evidence in Florida Car Accident Cases – Lenhart v. Basora