State of Ohio v. Bryant: Clarifying When Ohio Law Does Not Require a Driver to Remain at the Scene of an Accident

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Marcus Hughes, Associate Member, University of Cincinnati Law Review

I. INTRODUCTION

Seventy-seven percent of drivers have been in at least one accident.[1] The average driver will be involved in one accident about every eighteen years, or three or four vehicle accidents over the course of their lifetime.[2] Ohio law requires drivers involved in such accidents to immediately stop their vehicles and remain at the scene until they have given their name, address, and registered vehicle number to any person injured, the driver of any vehicle damaged, and the police officer at the scene.[3] And if an injured person is unable to comprehend and record the required information, drivers must notify the nearest police authority of the accident’s location and remain at the scene until a police officer arrives.[4] But, if a driver leaves the scene of an accident unaware that the police have been called to the scene in a situation where police notification is not mandatory, is the driver culpable for a failure to provide information to the responding officer? The Supreme Court of Ohio recently published an opinion that provides valuable guidance on this issue. This article surveys the lower court decisions in State v. Bryant, discusses the understanding subsequently provided by the Supreme Court of Ohio, and examines unfavorable policy implications that may result as a consequence of this understanding, along with the possible ways the legislature may mitigate them.    

II. State v. Bryant

The scope and applicability of the Ohio statute was at issue in State v. Bryant.[5] On the night of March 16, 2017, Michael Bryant was involved in a collision with a car driven by Elanor Everhardt.[6] Ms. Everhardt followed Mr. Bryant down the street until he pulled into a parking lot and both exited their vehicles.[7] Ms. Everhardt testified that Mr. Bryant was stumbling, smelled of alcohol, and was unaware that he had been in an accident.[8] Despite Mr. Bryant’s apparent intoxication, they spoke for about an hour, during which time Mr. Bryant gave Ms. Everhardt his full name and phone number and let her take a photograph of his state identification[9] and license plate.[10] Mr. Bryant asked Ms. Everhardt not to call the police because he did not have a driver’s license, had been drinking, was a drug dealer, and had drugs on him.[11] He offered her money to not call the police, which she refused.[12] Nevertheless, Ms. Everhardt did not call the police until she returned to her vehicle.[13] By the time Officer Weston Voss responded to the scene of the accident, Mr. Bryant had departed.[14] Officer Voss filed charges against Mr. Bryant for leaving the scene of an accident.[15]    

A. Trial Court Decision

The Hamilton County Municipal Court asked whether Mr. Bryant, by allowing Ms. Everhardt to take a picture of his license plate, properly provided his registered vehicle number as required by the Ohio statute.[16] Mr. Bryant maintained that a vehicle’s “registered number” is its license-plate number while the state disagreed and argued that the term refers to a separate “registration number”[17] assigned as part of the vehicle-registration process.[18] In the end, the trial court agreed with the State and concluded that Mr. Bryant left the scene of the accident in violation of the law because he failed to provide Ms. Everhardt with the registered number of his vehicle.[19]  

B. Appellate Court Decision

The First District Court of Appeals affirmed Mr. Bryant’s conviction for leaving the scene of the accident on alternative grounds.[20] Rather than addressing whether Mr. Bryant provided the registered number of his vehicle, the appellate court held that Mr. Bryant violated the statute by not providing the required identifying information to Officer Voss.”[21] The court reasoned that the statute requires the information be given not only to the other driver and any injured person, but also to “the police officer at the scene of the accident or collision.”[22] While recognizing that there is no general duty to call the police after every accident — for example, when the parties mutually agree not to call an officer to the scene — that was not what happened here.[23] Even though they spoke for an hour, Ms. Everhardt never told Mr. Bryant she was not going to call the police.[24] Under these specific facts, the court found that Mr. Bryant was required to give his information to Officer Voss when he arrived.[25] This reasoning suggests that if a driver leaves the scene of an accident without reaching a mutual agreement with the other driver not to call the police, then the driver is culpable for failing to provide information to the responding officer even if unaware that the officer has been called.

C. Supreme Court of Ohio Decision

The Supreme Court of Ohio reversed the judgments of the lower courts and vacated Bryant’s conviction for failure to provide information to the responding officer.[26] The court addressed both whether a registered vehicle number is the license-plate number associated with the vehicle and whether a driver is required to provide any information to a police officer when the driver leaves the scene without knowledge that the police have been alerted of the accident.[27]

1. An Operator’s Duty to Give Information to a Police Officer

The court first examined a driver’s duty to give information to the police officer at the scene of an accident.[28] It held that were the statute read to require an operator to wait for a police officer in all circumstances, there would be no reason to specify that an operator must wait for the police to arrive when an injured person was unresponsive.[29] The General Assembly could have imposed a general duty to report an accident to the police or to wait until the police arrive, but it chose not to.[30] Rather, the statute contemplates the possibility that a police officer will not always be called to the scene of a motor-vehicle accident.[31] And if there is no “police officer at the scene,” a driver does not violate the statute by departing without giving the information to an officer who arrives later.[32] It was enough that Mr. Bryant remained at the scene for a reasonable amount of time, provided the required information to Ms. Everhardt, and was unaware that Ms. Everhardt had called or was going to call the police.[33] Under this reasoning, if a driver leaves the scene of an accident without providing information to the responding officer, the driver is not liable for leaving the scene as long as the driver waited a reasonable amount of time and was unaware that the police had been called.

2. The Meaning of “Registered Number”

The court next examined the meaning of “registered number” under the statute.[34] It initially found “registered number” ambiguous but resolved the ambiguity by interpreting the provision alongside other Ohio statutes governing the registration and licensing of motor vehicles.[35] One statute requires motor vehicles be assigned a distinctive number when the owner first applies to register that vehicle.[36] Another requires the owner receive license plates showing “the distinctive number assigned to the motor vehicle.”[37] And a third requires the owner or operator of a motor vehicle to display on the front and rear of the vehicle “a license plate that bears the distinctive number and registration mark assigned to the motor vehicle.”[38] While those statutes do not use the term “registered number,” they established that a vehicle’s license-plate number is the distinctive number assigned to the vehicle upon registration.[39] That “distinctive number” is the only number that the statutes require to be assigned as part of the vehicle-registration process.[40] Because Mr. Bryant provided Ms. Everhardt with his complete name, address, and phone number and allowed her to photograph his state identification and license plate,[41] Ms. Everhardt possessed all the information Mr. Bryant was required to give.[42]

III. POLICY IMPLICATIONS

The court acknowledged the possibility that its interpretation of the statute might both incentivize an impaired operator to flee the scene of an accident before the police arrive and increase the risk of harm to the public.[43] If providing contact information to the other persons involved in the accident and remaining “unaware that the police have been or will be summoned” is all that is required before leaving the scene of an accident, drivers hoping to avoid the police might be encouraged to employ tactics designed to distract and delay.[44] If those tactics are successful, the driver will avoid liability under the statute, potentially avoid liability for any other crimes that may be discovered by the police, and expose the public to a driver who may be intoxicated or engaged in other illegal activities.[45] Still, the court found that in construing the statute, its duty was to give effect to the General Assembly’s intent as expressed in the language it enacted.[46] Objections to the policy implications of applying the statute as written were therefore properly addressed to the General Assembly and not to the courts.[47]

IV. CONCLUSION

Ohio law does not require drivers to remain at the scene of an accident if they are unaware that police have been or will be called as long as they provide their name, address, and license-plate number to the operators or owners of other involved vehicles and to any person injured in the accident. But drivers who know that police have been or will be notified are expected to wait a reasonable amount of time. And if an injured person is unresponsive, drivers must both notify the nearest police authority of the accident’s location and remain at the scene until a police officer arrives. Finally, although there are policy concerns raised by the court’s interpretation of the statute, the court finds those concerns to be within the purview of the General Assembly. Amending the statute to mandate both operators remain at the scene until each driver affirmatively waives any interest in calling the police may help mitigate the risk that impaired drivers who are criminally culpable will attempt to leave before the other driver can report the incident to the police. Such an amendment might also encourage discourse between drivers and facilitate better resolution when accidents occur. 


[1] Esurance, Fender Benders and Financial Bummers (Apr. 12, 2020), https://www.esurance.com/insights/car-accident-missteps-money-time?_ga=2.143060598.2106963404.1586559396-914241192.1586559396.

[2] Forbes, How Many Times Will You Crash Your Car? (Jan. 27, 2011), https://www.forbes.com/sites/moneybuilder/2011/07/27/how-many-times-will-you-crash-your-car/#55522bb94e62

[3] Ohio Rev. Code § 4549.02(A)(1). Drivers must also provide the name and address of the vehicle’s owner if different than the driver.

[4] Ohio Rev. Code § 4549.02(A)(2).

[5] State v. Bryant, Slip Opinion No. 2020-Ohio-1041 (Mar. 24, 2020).

[6] State v. Bryant, No. 2018-Ohio-3756, 2018 WL 4490919, at *1 (Sep. 19, 2018).

[7] Id.

[8] Bryant, Slip Op. at *1.

[9] A non-driver state identity card fulfills the same identification functions as the driver’s license, but does not permit the operation of a motor vehicle.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Bryant, 2018 WL 4490919, at *1.

[13] Bryant, Slip Op. at *1.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Bryant, 2018 WL 4490919, at *2.

[17] The State may have been referring to the Vehicle Identification Number (“VIN”). This number is assigned by the vehicle manufacturer and identifies the make, model, model year, as well as more detailed information such as engine type.

[18] Bryant, Slip Op. at *4.

[19] Id. at *1.

[20] Id.

[21] Id. (quoting R.C. 4549.02(A)(1)(c)).

[22] Bryant, 2018 WL 4490919, at *3.

[23] Id.

[24] Id.

[25] Id.

[26] State v. Bryant, Slip Opinion No. 2020-Ohio-1041, at *6 (Mar. 24, 2020).

[27] Id.

[28] Id. at *2.

[29] Id. at *3.

[30] Id.

[31] Id. at *4.

[32] Id.

[33] Id.

[34] Id.

[35] Id.

[36] Ohio Rev. Code § 4503.19(A)(1).

[37] Ohio Rev. Code § 4503.19(A)(2)(a) and R.C. 4503.22.

[38] Ohio Rev. Code § 4503.21(A)(1).

[39] State v. Bryant, Slip Opinion No. 2020-Ohio-1041, at *5 (Mar. 24, 2020).

[40] Id. (“Bryant’s argument that ‘registered number’ means a vehicle’s license-plate number is [also] consistent with statements in Ohio Department of Public Safety, Digest of Ohio Motor Vehicle Laws, https://publicsafety.ohio.gov/links/hsy7607.pdf (accessed January 10, 2020) [https://perma.cc/S9A7-LN7X]. That publication instructs a motor-vehicle operator, in the event of a crash, to gather from other drivers names, addresses, dates of birth, license-plate numbers, and driver’s-license numbers. It does not mention ‘registered numbers,’ nor does it recommend the exchange of any numbers other than the license-plate numbers to identify vehicles involved in the crash.”). Compare with Vehicle Identification Numbers, which are assigned during the manufacturing process.

[41] Id. at *6.

[42] Id.

[43] Id. at *4.

[44] Id. at *10 (O’Connor, C.J., dissenting).

[45] Id. (O’Connor, C.J., dissenting).

[46] Id. at *4.

[47] Id.

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