In some unfortunate motor vehicle accidents, the at-fault driver leaves the scene. Sometimes the departure is inadvertent or with the intention of returning after retrieving a license or driving around the block to avoid creating more hazardous conditions on the roadway.
When a defendant leaves the scene of an accident, particularly when there’s obvious evidence of personal injury, the law in Maryland allows that fact to be presented to the jury and an instruction given to the effect that leaving the scene is evidence of guilt. We have used this rule of evidence successfully in several trials. In our last case where the issue arose, Howard v. Schulman, (Case No. 02C07120453 (A.A. Co Cir. Ct. 2008), a $1.9 million verdict was rendered by an Anne Arundel County jury against the driver of a cement mixer struck and killed one pedestrian and severely injured another after driving onto the shoulder where they were standing next to their disabled vehicle. Not only did the driver not stop, but he abruptly made a u-turn on a major highway utilizing the emergency crossover used for official law enforcement and municipal vehicles and drove by the scene in the opposite direction with the catastrophe he caused in plain view for him to see. He denied any knowledge of the accident. The jury deliberated for an hour before reaching its verdict.
On May 14, 2009, the Court of Appeals of Maryland rendered a decision in the criminal case of Decker v. State, No. 44, Sept. Term 2008, which affirmed the rule that admission of flight is appropriate evidence of guilt. That opinion can be read at the Maryland Judiciary Home Page at http://mdcourts.gov/opinions/coa/2009/44a08.pdf. There, the defendant left the courtroom before sentencing and, after an extensive search of the courthouse was unsuccessful at locating the defendant, the case was postponed. the Court of Appeals concluded that the evidence of defendant’s leaving the courtroom was relevant as consciousness of guilt, because the jury could have reasonably inferred from defendant’s actions that he was fleeing the courtroom out of a concern that the trial would not turn out well for him.
What may seem a logical and reasonable rule of evidence is not always applied universally by trial judges, and is dependent on the circumstances of the flight and the events that precede and follow it.