Coming clean: Hit-and-runner blabs to lawyer
Here's a strategy for handling a hit-and-run accident that isn't taught in driver's ed: Call your lawyer first.
That's what the driver who slammed into Adrienne Eichner's pickup did, and thanks to the attorney-client privilege, she still doesn't know who totaled her truck.
Eichner, 19, was awakened by a middle-of-the-night crash on St. Charles Avenue April 10, but she went back to sleep. "You wouldn't think it was your truck outside being demolished," she says.
She woke up again when the police arrived at 4:30am to tell her she was the victim of a hit and run. Her 1995 Toyota truck was no longer in front of the house where she'd parked it, but 40 to 50 yards away in her neighbor's yard. "The azalea bushes are the only thing that stopped it," says Officer Faron Ocheltree, who's investigating the incident.
"The odd twist to this is that an attorney contacted the police and said his client hit the vehicle, and is on probation, doesn't have a license, and he's been drinking," says Ocheltree.
Attorney Bud Treakle confirms that he contacted police on behalf of his unnamed client, but says he doesn't remember saying the driver was on probation, drinking, and license-less.
"I have a policy that I don't talk about pending cases," says Treakle. "My client is willing to make restitution."
Use of attorney-client privilege to conceal the identity of a perpetrator is perfectly legal. "In fact, it would be unethical for the lawyer to disclose who it was if the client instructed him not to," says UVA law ethics prof George Rutherglen.
"That doesn't get the client off the hook," he adds. "If independent means find him, he can still be charged. The client doesn't get an immunity from prosecution."
And in fact, Officer Ocheltree is determined to nab the hit and runner, and he has a suspect, the result of a Crimestoppers' tip. "There's no doubt in my mind who it is," he says. "But until I can prove it in court, I'm not going to release the name."
Initially, Eichner says, police told her they knew who did it and that he was in the hospital. "Then they said it was a hit and run, and they had no idea who it was."
Officer R. L. Shaner was the officer on the scene, but The Hook was unable to reach him by press time.
The police incident report valued Eichner's truck at $8,000, and she has received a check from her insurance company.
In addition, Eichner has a list of other expenses she's incurred, and she'd also like to see her neighbor's azaleas replaced. "The lawyer said I'd be compensated," she says. "I haven't gotten anything."
A hit and run with damages over $1,000 is a Class 6 felony, according to the commonwealth attorney's office, with sentences up to five years in the penitentiary or up to 12 months in jail and/or a $2,500 fine.
Ocheltree can't estimate how fast the driver must have been going when he plowed into Eichner's truck because St. Charles Avenue is so short. "The street is wide; it's well lit. Why they would hit a legally parked vehicle only implies they were under the influence," he says.