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Whenever the Court is confronted with the question of a compelled disclosure that has an incriminating potential, the judicial scrutiny is invariably a close one. Tension between the state's demand for disclosures and the protection of the right against self-incrimination is likely to give rise to serious questions. Inevitably these must be resolved in terms of balancing the public need on the one hand, and the individual claim to constitutional protections on the other; neither interest can be treated lightly.
The first count of a criminal complaint charged a motorist with violation of the California Vehicle Code's provision against passing another vehicle without maintaining a safe distance, and the second count of the complaint charged him with failing to comply with the provisions of the "hit and run" statute, requiring the driver of a motor vehicle involved in an accident resulting in damage to any property to stop at the scene and give his name and address. Both charges arose out of the same accident, and the defendant's demurrer to the second count, asserting violation of his privilege against self-incrimination, was overruled by a California Justice Court. The defendant then sought a writ of prohibition from the Superior Court of Mendocino County, California, to restrain prosecution of the second count. The Superior Court issued the writ, and the Supreme Court of California ultimately affirmed, holding that the privilege against self-incrimination was applicable to a motorist, such as the defendant, who reasonably believed that compliance with the statute would result in a substantial risk of self-incrimination. The California Supreme Court also held that in the case of such a motorist, the hit-and-run statute should be limited by a restriction preventing use in subsequent criminal prosecutions, arising from the motorist's conduct, of information disclosed under the statute, and the fruits of such information, but the court concluded that it would be unfair to punish the defendant for failure to comply with the statute, since he could not have had knowledge that use restrictions would be imposed by the courts.
Is the constitutional privilege against compulsory self-incrimination infringed by California's so-called "hit and run" statute which requires the driver of a motor vehicle involved in an accident to stop at the scene and give his name and address?
The Supreme Court reversed the state supreme court finding that the statute requiring individuals to stop and identify themselves after a motor vehicle accident was unconstitutional as compelling self-incrimination. The court held that the mere possibility of incrimination by compelled disclosure did not render a statute unconstitutional under U.S. Const. amend. V. The court further held that the statute was directed at the public as a whole and was a regulatory measure not intended to be a criminal statute. Additionally, the court held that even if the statute was held to be incriminating in nature, the statute would remain constitutional because the nature of the incrimination was not testimonial. Therefore, the judgment finding the statute unconstitutional was reversed.