After a car accident, any finding of fault that might be included in a police report is probably not as significant as you might think. A police report is generally not admissible in court in a car accident case, so it's not conclusive proof of anything. At the same time, the contents of the police report can be detrimental to your case, since any unfavorable details or findings can be used as leverage in a car accident settlement negotiation. Read on to learn more, including ways to fight the finding of fault in a police report.
Police reports are generally not admissible in a car accident lawsuit filed in court. For the most part the inadmissibility of a police report stems from its status as "hearsay evidence." In legalese, hearsay is a statement made out of court, and later introduced in court, in an attempt to prove the truth of an assertion.
Put a bit more simply, a police report is hearsay, at least where it's used in court to try to prove fault for a car accident, because the police officer made the report (which is considered a "statement"), but did not personally observe the accident. On the other hand, if the police officer did observe the accident first-hand and testifies about it in court, their testimony would be admissible in court.
Although police reports are not admissible in court, there are ways to utilize a police report outside of court. If the police report contains a law enforcement officer's finding or opinion that you were at fault for the car accident, the insurance company can use the report to refuse settlement or to offer a low settlement amount. On the other hand, if the police report finds the other driver at-fault, it can provide you with significant leverage during car accident settlement negotiations.
Any law enforcement officer who prepares a police report is human, and it's not unheard of for errors to pop up in the report. These mistakes can range from minor errors to major blunders. So, what can you do? It may seem like the police report and everything in it is set in stone once you get your hands on it, but that's not necessarily true. In some cases, you can ask an officer to change ("amend") or add to ("supplement") a police report.
Information in a police report usually falls into one of two categories: factual information and disputed information. It's typically easier to change factual information than disputed information. Let's take a closer look.
An error of fact is a mistake involving objective information. An officer who transposes digits in a social security number or telephone number, or confuses the make, model, or color of a car that was involved in the accident makes an error of fact.
Usually, an error of fact can be corrected by simply producing proof of the correct information, typically through documentation. If you notice an error of fact in a police report, you can typically just contact the officer who prepared the report, and provide proof of the correct information—vehicle registration records, your driver's license, insurance forms, and the like. The police officer can easily attach an attachment to the report explaining the error, or might actually change the error on the report itself, depending on departmental policy.
The more difficult task is to amend a police report when you or your attorney simply don't agree with something contained in the report—not because of a mistake of fact, but because you'd reach a different conclusion or you'd characterize something in a different way.
For example, let's say you disagree with the details of the accident as described by a witness or another party to the accident. In the report, Witness 2 says that Driver 1 entered the intersection while the traffic signal was still green, but you think the traffic signal was red at the time.
It's very difficult to amend a police report in situations like this, because Witness 2's statement might not be incorrect (or at least it may not be possible to prove it's an incorrect statement).
Likewise, even if you disagree with the wording of a statement that the officer claims to have taken directly from you, or if you feel that your statements were mischaracterized in some way, you probably won't be able to have the actual police report changed. So what can you do? You can write up your own account of the accident or your observation as to certain key details, and ask that this evidence be attached to the police report. Under most department policies, it will be up to the officer to decide whether to add your information to the existing report—in other words, you can make your case that the requested change be made, but it's not up to you.
If a police report includes allegations that you were at fault and/or that you received a traffic citation related to a car accident, you might be able to contest the ticket and/or get the police report changed (or "amended").
Where you are issued a citation, there is typically a time period in which you need to respond, usually between 20 and 30 days. If you fail to contest the citation within the time period, your right to contest is usually lost. The citation will contain language explaining the procedure for contesting the charges.
You will be required to appear in court, typically at a hearing, and testify that you did not commit the traffic infractions. You will appear before a judge, magistrate or similar judicial officer. Your personal injury lawyer may attend the hearing with you, or you may choose to appear alone.
In most states, if the police officer who wrote the police report or issued the traffic citation does not attend the hearing, the charges will be dropped. The police officer's testimony is usually required when you contest a traffic infraction or police report. With the traffic infraction charges dropped, you should be in a stronger settlement position with the other driver's car insurance company.
Where the police officer does appear, you and the police officer will generally give testimony before the court. The judicial officer will then make a determination of whether the traffic citation charge should stand. Note that if you testify in court and inadvertently admit fault or liability in the accident, your testimony may be admissible against you in your personal injury case.
Suppose your car was clipped after you made a right-hand turn. The police report stated that you did not come to a complete stop before making the right turn. The police officer spoke with the other driver and her passengers and they stated that you did not make a complete stop. You did not make a statement to the police officer because you were transported from the accident scene by paramedics due to neck and face injuries. The police officer also issued you a citation for failing to stop at the stop sign. You contest the ticket within 30 days, as required by your state law. At the hearing, the police officer does not appear. At this point, the failure to stop at a stop sign charge will likely be dropped.
For more details on how to get a police report changed, or how to dispute any kind of evidence that you caused a car accident, getting a lawyer's advice could be crucial, especially if you suffered significant injuries in the accident. Learn more about how to find the right car accident lawyer for you and your case.