LOCATION: United States Court of Appeals for the Firth Circuit
DOCKET NO.: 75
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1970-1971)
CITATION: 402 US 424 (1971)
ARGUED: Dec 08, 1970
DECIDED: May 17, 1971
Facts of the case
Media for California v. Byers
Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - December 08, 1970 in California v. Byers
Warren E. Burger:
Number 75, California against Byers.
Mrs. Renne you may proceed whenever you ready.
Louise H. Renne:
Mr. Chief Justice, may it please the Court.
This case arises on certiorari to the Supreme Court of the State of California and presents the issue of the applicability of the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination to a state hit and run statute.
In particular, we think the questions presented by this case are one, whether the requirement imposed by a state hit and run statute that a driver involved in an accident must stop at the scene and give his name and address violates the privilege against self-incrimination and two, whether it is necessary to bar use of that information or fruits of that information in any criminal proceeding, in order to sustain the constitutionality of the statute.
The State Supreme Court held that the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination did apply to the requirement that a driver must stop at the scene of the accident and identify himself and that the constitutionality of the statute could only be sustained if no use of that information or the fruits was made in any criminal proceeding.
It is our position that the Fifth Amendment does not apply to a requirement that a driver must stop and identify himself to the owner of damaged property or to a person injured on the road and that it is not necessary to bar identification evidence or the fruits to that compliance in any kind of criminal proceeding.
The way in which this case arose procedurally, was that a two-count criminal complaint was filed in the Mendocino County Justice Court for the Ukiah Judicial District in California, charging the respondent Jonathan Todd Byers with two misdemeanor violations of the California Vehicle Code.
Count 1 of the complaint charged that the respondent Byers failed to pass to the left safely as he was overtaking and passing a vehicle proceeding in the same direction.
Count 2 of the complaint charged that he violated the California property damage hit and run statute.
Under that statute, a driver is required to stop at the scene of the accident when he is involved in any accident resulting in property damage and give his name and address to the owner or of the property damaged or the driver of the vehicle damaged.
This requirement is similar to the uniform vehicle code requirement and in fact the laws of all jurisdictions in our country impose similar requirements that driver must stop and identify himself.
The purpose of the statute is to protect against financial loss or where similar requirements are imposed in personal injury hit and run statute to ensure that people will not be left lying hurt and injured on the roads.
There is another section, part of the statute 2, Section 202 and that deals in the case where you have unattended property where the driver or owner of the damaged property cannot be immediately located.
In that case, the driver must leave a note on the car giving that same information and statement of the circumstances and notify the local police.
The purpose of that provision is to make sure that when the owner of the damaged property comes to his property, he will know who to contact in the case when he sees the note or if the note has been lost or destroyed, find out who the owner was from the police.
This particular part of the statute has never been raised and questioned in the proceedings below.
Instead from the outset of the case when the demurrer was first filed to the complaint, the basis of the respondent's argument was that the minimal duty to stop and give the name and address to the driver or owner of the property damaged, violated the privilege against self-incrimination.
The Justice Court dismissed the demurrer.
However, when a writ of prohibition was then taken to the superior court, the superior court held that the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination applied to this minimal duty and that the respondent Byers could not be prosecuted for failing to stop at the scene of the accident.
The people filed a notice of appeal to the Court of Appeal.
The Court of Appeal reversed the decision of the Superior Court.
The Court of Appeal held that the -- it held that the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination did apply to this identification requirement.
But that the constitutionality of the statute could be sustained if no use were made of the identification evidence or any fruits of the compliance with the statute.
Both parties then filed petitions for hearing with the State Supreme Court.
The State Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals.
It agreed with the Court of Appeals to the extent that it held that all drivers must stop and comply with the statute.
It also agreed with the Court of Appeals that the Fifth Amendment applied to the privilege against self-incrimination.
But it further held that the constitutionality of the statute could be sustained if no use were made of that information in any kind of criminal proceeding that might arise.
The court recognized that this was a new doctrine of jurisprudence because until the decision below, this kind of requirement had been uniformly upheld in California and other elsewhere.