The biggest mistake you can make with a reckless driving charge in Virginia is treating it like a normal traffic ticket.
Virginia courts penalize reckless driving as a Class 1 misdemeanor. This means that a successful conviction can lead to jail time, massive fines, and even the loss of your license.
This is especially tricky for out of state drivers, who often have to fight the charge from hundreds of miles away.
However, a reckless driving ticket isn’t the end of the world.
Being proactive in your defense can go a long way, especially in cases of reckless by speed.
In this article, we’ll cover every aspect of understanding and fighting a reckless driving charge in Virginia.
What is Reckless Driving?
The Virginia Code defines a number of actions as reckless driving.
While there are several reckless driving statutes in the Virginia Code, most reckless driving charges fall under one of three different laws:
- VA Code § 46.2-852 — Driving a vehicle in a way that endangers others, regardless of speed.
- VA Code § 46.2-853 — Failing to maintain control of a vehicle, including failure to properly maintain safety equipment such as brakes.
- VA Code § 46.2-862 — Driving more that 20 mph over the speed limit, OR faster than 80 mph total.
Using these laws, as well as other, more specific sections in the statute, Virginia judges can punish a wide variety of unsafe driving habits as “reckless.”
Examples of other forms of reckless driving include drowsy driving, passing a stopped school bus, and drag racing.
Reckless Driving: A Common Charge
Reckless driving is one of the most commonly charged traffic crimes in Virginia, usually for cases of speeding.
However, unlike normal traffic infractions, Virginia courts treat reckless driving as a Class 1 misdemeanor.
This means that, in the eyes of the court, reckless driving is as serious of an offense as assault, impersonating a police officer, and certain forms of arson.
Essentially, this means that a reckless driving charge isn’t something that will go away by simply paying a ticket.
As a criminal charge, you need to hire a lawyer and prepare to fight the charges in court.
In general, there are four topics you should consider when facing down a reckless driving ticket:
- Is your ticket actually for reckless driving?
- When (and where) is your court date?
- What happened during your stop?
- What are the chances of reducing the ticket?
We’ll outline each below.
Understanding Your Ticket
Traffic stop procedures can vary widely based on where you are in Virginia.
For this reason, you might have some difficulty figuring out whether your ticket is for speeding or reckless driving.
If you have any questions during the stop itself, ask the officer who issued you the ticket.
However, if you still don’t understand something after leaving the stop, there are a few things you can do to check whether the ticket is for reckless driving:
- First, look at the “charges” or “law section” part of the ticket. Any codes between § 46.2-852 and § 46.2-869, or the letters “RD,” may mean the ticket is for reckless driving.
- If an officer stopped you for speeding, make sure to take note of the speed written on the ticket. Anything more than 20 miles over the speed limit, or over 80 mph total, may suggest that the ticket is for reckless driving.
- In some counties, an officer might scratch out the prepayment information on the ticket to further ensure you know you have to go to court. However, this is not true everywhere in Virginia.
Understanding Your Court Date
Once you’re certain that your ticket is for reckless driving, it’s time to take a look at your court date.
The date on your ticket may be one of two things: a date within a couple weeks, or a date a few months away.
Generally, if the court date on your ticket is within a few weeks of the incident, this will be your “date of first appearance.”
This is an informal hearing commonly known as arraignment. During this hearing, the judge will tell you the date of your trial, and advise you of your rights.
If you qualify for a court-appointed attorney, the judge will also let you know on this day.
If the date is further out, then it is likely your actual trial date.
By this point, you need to have either hired an attorney or spoken with the court-appointed attorney about your case.
Trials for reckless driving in Virginia take place in the General District Court in the city or county where you were cited.
Burdens of Proof and Criminal Convictions
Usually, reckless driving charges hinge on how the officer’s speed testing device measures the speed you are traveling at.
For this reason, a common defense is to argue that the officer made a mistake, or that the device incorrectly measured your speed.
The officer can (and will) testify to anything that happened during the traffic stop, including any statements that you made to the officer regarding your speed.
For this reason, you should always speak carefully with officers during traffic stops. As the saying goes, anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.
Accidentally admitting to a crime during the stop will only negatively impact your case down the line.
Finally, you should note that failure to appear in court is in itself a Class 1 misdemeanor in Virginia. This means that it carries the same criminal penalties as reckless driving.
Make sure to always attend any court dates relating to your reckless driving charge.
If you have any questions about the court date you should reach out to the Clerk of the court. You could also ask your attorney if you’ve already hired one.
Speeding and Improper Driving
In order to better understand your ticket, and the strategies you have for fighting it, you should also know the differences between speeding, improper driving, and reckless driving.
Specifically, while reckless driving may be a crime, speeding and improper driving are traffic infractions which carry much lower penalties.
Speeding — In Virginia, most cases of speeding don’t lead to reckless driving charges, and thus do not carry criminal penalties.
Instead, the maximum penalty for speeding is usually only a $250 fine.
The DMV will also apply between three and six demerit points to your license.
Improper Driving — While improper driving sounds similar to reckless driving, the Code treats it very differently.
As defined in VA Code § 46.2-869, improper driving is a non-criminal traffic infraction and not a misdemeanor.
At most, improper driving will result in a $500 fine and three points on your license.
However, you should note that you’ll never receive a ticket for “improper driving.”
Instead, improper driving is a way for judges to lower the penalties for reckless driving if they feel the case doesn’t necessitate serious punishment.
Essentially, instead of wasting time and money fighting a reckless driving charge, you can instead plead guilty to improper driving.
This lets you avoid criminal charges altogether in exchange for a much lower punishment, such as a small fine, community service, and/or mandatory driving classes.
This is one very good reason to speak with an attorney early in your case, as they know how to maneuver your case towards this outcome.
What are the Consequences of a Reckless Driving Conviction?
Individuals convicted of reckless driving in Virginia can expect several penalties, ranging from those outlined in the Code to related collateral consequences.
In general, first-time offenders can expect a fine, points on their license, and possibly jail time.
We’ll outline the basics of each of these penalties below.
A Substantial Fine
If convicted, you’ll usually receive a relatively large fine. The actual amount can vary by jurisdiction, and sometimes depends on how fast you were going.
In general, you should expect to pay around $350-$500.
However, while the general trend is towards lower fines, the maximum fine of $2,500 is not unheard of. This is especially true for repeat offenders.
Points on Your License and License Suspension
Additionally, if a Virginia court finds you guilty of reckless driving the DMV will place six demerit points on your license.
These points will normally remain on your license for two years.
Once you receive a set amount of points within a short amount of time, the DMV will automatically suspend or revoke your license.
For example, if a reckless driving conviction puts you over eight points in one year, or twelve points within two years, you will lose your license.
While it’s possible to reinstate your license, doing so can cost a lot of money, and can take several months to pull off.
Even if your conviction doesn’t bring you above the DMV’s point limit, a judge can still decide to suspend your license anyway.
Judges typically do this for DUI convictions, repeat reckless driving offenders, and in instances of extreme negligence.
In addition to the penalties above, you may face up to one year of jail time for a reckless driving conviction.
However, most first-time offenders can avoid jail by instead performing community service.
Typically, judges will only assign jail time to repeat offenders, racers, and those going over 95 mph.
As with license suspension, the final decision falls to the judge presiding over your case.
Making a good impression on the judge is especially helpful in this regard.
For this reason, many attorney recommend taking driving classes or completing treatment programs before stepping in the courtroom.
This can help show the judge that you’re taking steps to fix the problem.
Collateral Consequences of a Reckless Driving Charge
In addition to the penalties outlined in the Virginia Code, there are several other consequences that might come out of a reckless driving conviction.
These penalties are commonly referred to as collateral consequences.
Collateral consequences are additional penalties you might face outside of those specifically outlined in the code.
While fines and jail time are direct consequences of a criminal conviction, having a crime on your record can negatively impact your life in other ways.
One common example of this is that crimes often show up on background checks, which can affect your ability to get a job.
While there are hundreds of collateral consequences for criminal convictions in Virginia, there are a few common ones you should look out for in relation to a reckless driving charge.
These can include difficulty applying for public housing, the loss of certain government benefits, and an increase in insurance premiums.
You should speak with your lawyer about any and all collateral consequences of a reckless driving conviction before your trial date.
Penalties for Out-of-State Drivers
In Virginia, most of the above penalties apply equally to in-state and out-of-state drivers.
Even if you live in another state, you might have to show up in the Virginia court listed on your ticket on your assigned day.
Sometimes, a small box on your summons will be checked if you don’t need to come to court as an out of state defendant.
However, you should still speak with an attorney to double check this information.
Remember, failing to show up to your court date can lead to additional charges.
For this reason, you’ll want to be especially certain that you have all your ducks in a row as an out-of-state defendant.
One other thing to note as an out-of-state driver is that your state’s DMV might place a different point total on your license than what would normally be assigned in Virginia.
This is because most states subscribe to the Interstate Driver’s License Compact.
Basically, this compact says that a state can treat a criminal traffic charge from another state as if it occurred in their own jurisdiction.
In other words, your home state will penalize your license based on its own reckless driving laws, not Virginia’s.
This is particularly relevant for North Carolina residents, who may suffer an immediate 30-day license suspension.
How Do I Fight A Reckless Driving Charge in Virginia?
Depending on the circumstances of your reckless driving case, your lawyer may argue for one of two options.
If you have a strong argument for innocence, your attorney may attempt to get the case dismissed entirely.
If you can’t make that argument, your attorney may instead argue for a reduced charge, such as improper driving.
Arguing for Dismissal
In order to make a reckless driving charge stick, the state has to prove the following things beyond reasonable doubt:
- You were driving on the day of the offense.
- You were driving unsafely, or at an unsafe speed.
If the judge has a reason to doubt either of those facts, you can move to get your case dismissed.
In most cases, introducing doubt will rely on proving that your driving was not unsafe, or that you were not the one driving.
However, you should note that most of the articles you’ll read about how to get out of tickets don’t usually work in court.
Stating that your speedometer was incorrect, or that your brakes failed, is not a valid defense in most Virginia courtrooms.
This is because there is a reasonable expectation in Virginia that you properly maintain your vehicle.
In cases that resulted in an accident, the state must also provide evidence that you were directly responsible for the crash.
Note that while Virginia normally uses the contributory negligence rule for car accidents, any responsibility is enough to prove a reckless driving charge.
This is part of the reason that attorneys tell their clients to avoid talking to the police more than they have to.
By providing the officer on scene with additional details, you increase the chance of self-incrimination.
Additionally, you should avoid incriminating yourself in other courts before your reckless driving trial.
If you admit fault in a personal injury case, the prosecution might use that ruling against you in your criminal case.
Arguing for Lesser Charges
If your attorney can’t get your case dismissed outright, they’ll instead argue for lesser charges.
Typically, this involves asking the Commonwealth Attorney to instead find you guilty of improper driving.
As we mentioned earlier, improper driving is a non-criminal offense, and does not carry the risk of jail time.
Basically, you want to show the court that you’ve made efforts to correct your behavior, and that there is a low risk of a repeat offense.
In return, the court will offer you a plea deal for this much lower offense.
Generally speaking, there are a few things you’ll want to do before your trial date if you choose this path.
First, depending on your district, you should commit to performing community service before your trial date.
Since many judges assign community service instead of jail time, committing to, and performing, community service before you show up in court will only help your case.
Second, you should look into taking driver improvement courses prior to your trial.
These classes help demonstrate that you’ve addressed the problem, and feel remorse for your actions.
Additionally, many Virginia judges mandate these classes anyway as part of a plea deal.
Finally, if you do choose to argue that your speedometer or another mechanical element failed, make sure to calibrate or fix the device before your court date.
While not a valid defense on its own, taking actions to fix the problem will also help your case in court.
Virginia is notoriously harsh in its treatment of driving crimes.
Many offenses that might be infractions in other states are serious crimes in Virginia, and carry similarly serious penalties.
In order to protect yourself from a reckless driving conviction, there are several key things you need to know:
- The Commonwealth of Virginia defines reckless driving in many different ways. However, the most common reason for a reckless driving charge is speed.
- If you’re charged with reckless driving, consult a lawyer immediately. In Virginia, reckless driving is a misdemeanor, not just a traffic infraction.
- Make sure to attend both your first appearance (if applicable) and your trial date. Failing to do so is a separate crime, which can result in even more penalties.
- If you’re unhappy with the outcome of your trial, talk to your lawyer immediately about filing an appeal. You only have 10 days to file the paperwork with your local Circuit Court.
Remember, a reckless driving conviction is misdemeanor that will stay on your record forever.
For that reason, you should hire an attorney immediately after reckless driving charges are filed against you.
Even if they can’t get your case dismissed entirely, having a lawyer by your side can greatly increase your chances of success in court.
In any case, the most important thing to remember about reckless driving in Virginia is that you need to take the charges seriously.
Hiring an experienced traffic lawyer is the best way to get through this difficult time both safely and easily.