Reckless Driving in Virginia: The Ultimate Guide

Reckless driving in Virginia is a misdemeanor, not just a traffic infraction. This guide covers the ins and outs of reckless driving procedure in Virginia.

The biggest mistake you can make with a reckless driving charge is treating it like a normal traffic infraction. In Virginia, reckless driving is a class 1 misdemeanor which can lead to jail time and massive fines. You might even have your license suspended, which can affect your job and other critical parts of your life.

Even if you’re just traveling through the state, a reckless driving charge is serious, and dealing with it from your home state can be a challenge.

While Virginia punishes reckless driving very severely, a reckless driving charge isn’t the end of the world. Often, you can argue for a lower charge such as improper driving, or agree to take driving courses or other similar classes.

In general, the biggest piece of advice we can give is that you need a seasoned attorney to fight a reckless driving charge. While this article can provide helpful information for understanding the charge, it is not substitute for the valuable advice an attorney can give you in person.

Remember, reckless driving is a full-fledged crime that will show up on background checks and other relevant criminal records. Hiring an attorney is often the only way to mitigate these charges.

What is Reckless Driving?

The Virginia Code defines a number of actions as reckless driving. In Virginia, you are driving recklessly if you are:

  • VA Code § 46.2-862: Driving more that 20 mph over the speed limit, OR more than 80 mph.
  • VA Code § 46.2-853: Failing to maintain control of a vehicle. The law also applies to those driving vehicles with faulty brakes.
  • VA Code § 46.2-852: Driving a vehicle in a way that endangers others, regardless of speed.

Other actions, such as passing a stopped school bus and drag racing, are also considered reckless driving in Virginia. Basically, the laws center on any action that a Virginia court could reasonably find excessively unsafe.

Reckless Driving: a Common Charge

Reckless driving is one of the most common traffic charges in Virginia, usually for cases of speeding. Usually, the charge will depend on the officer’s view of fault at the time. A common defense is to argue that the officer simply made a mistake, or that their arrest information is incorrect in some way.

Remember, the officer must prove the charge in court. Usually, this comes down to your testimony rather than any concrete evidence. If you tell the officer “well I was only going 80” after he claims you were going 85, that comment can be used as proof of the reckless driving charge.

For this reason, you should always be extremely careful when talking with an officer during a traffic stop. You should always make them prove the offense, rather than accidentally incriminating yourself on the side of the road.

Taking Reckless Driving Seriously

Even if reckless driving is fairly common in Virginia, you should still treat it as an incredibly serious crime. As mentioned above, a reckless driving conviction can leave you with massive fines, a suspended license, or even some jail time.

In addition, you should always appear in person (preferably with a lawyer) to fight a reckless driving charge. You cannot simply pay a fine and continue with your life as you would with a traffic infraction.

Failing to appear in court is in itself a crime in Virginia. In fact, failure to appear counts as the same class of crime as reckless driving. To put this into perspective, if you fail to appear in court, you’ll gain an additional class 1 misdemeanor on your record. This will result in an additional fine of up to $2500 and/ or up to 12 month in jail on top of your original reckless driving charge.

Speeding and Improper Driving

In order to understand your ticket, you should know the differences between speeding, improper driving, and reckless driving. We’ll outline the basics of speeding and improper driving below:

Speeding:

  • In Virginia, most cases of speeding are not reckless driving, and do not carry criminal penalties. Instead, the maximum penalty for speeding in most cases is a $250 fine, and some demerit points on your driving record.
  • Speeding can result in anywhere between three to six points on your license, while reckless driving in Virginia always results in the full six.

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 traffic infraction (non-criminal) and not a misdemeanor.
    • For this reason, the penalties for improper driving in Virginia are much less severe than reckless driving. At most, improper driving will result in a $500 fine and three points on your license.
  • However, you’ll never receive a ticket for “improper driving” in Virginia. You must instead argue a reckless driving charge down to improper driving by presenting a solid case in court.
    • This usually happens when the judge or state attorney finds your crime “slight,” meaning that while your crime is serious, the danger it caused doesn’t necessitate a year in jail.

In general, you should always try to argue a reckless driving charge down to improper driving due to the lower penalties.

This is part of the reason that it’s so important to consult a lawyer early. By doing so, you’ll give them time to determine whether or not an improper driving argument is a good option for your case.

Understanding Your Ticket

Traffic stop procedures can vary widely by region in Virginia. For this reason, you might have some difficulty in figuring out whether or not your ticket is for speeding or reckless driving.

For this reason, we recommend that you take the following steps whenever you’re given a traffic ticket in Virginia:

  • First, look at the “charges” section of the ticket. If it lists any of the VA codes we mentioned previously, or if you see the letters “RD,” the ticket is for reckless driving.
  • Those who were stopped for speeding should take note of the speed written on the ticket. If it’s more than 20 miles over the speed limit, or if its over 80 mph, the ticket is most likely for reckless driving.
  • In some counties, officers scratch out the prepayment information on the ticket in reckless driving cases. However, this is not true everywhere in Virginia.

What are the Consequences for Reckless Driving in Virginia?

A Substantial Fine

If convicted, you’ll usually receive a rather large fine. The actual amount can vary by jurisdiction, and sometimes depends on how fast you were going. In general however, the fine is usually around $350.

However, the maximum fine of $2,500 is not unheard of, especially for repeat reckless drivers.

Points on Your License/Suspended License

Additionally, if the court finds you guilty of reckless driving they will place between one and six demerit points on your license. These points will normally remain on your license for two years, and can have severe consequences.

For example, if a reckless driving conviction puts you over eight points in one year, or twelve points within two years, you can lose your license. See the Virginia DMV’s page on the Point System for more details.

Even if your conviction doesn’t bring you above the maximum points, the judge can decide to suspend your license anyway. Judges typically do this in cases related to DUI or extreme negligence. However, it’s rare for a judge to go out of their way to suspend your license if you were only speeding.

Jail Time

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 argue their way out of jail time.

Typically, judges will assign jail time to repeat reckless drivers, racers, or those going over 95 mph. The final decision, however, falls to the judge presiding over your case.

Insurance Premium Increases

While the court does not assign this as a penalty, you can expect your insurance company to raise your rates after a reckless driving conviction.

Criminal Record

Finally, note once again that reckless driving is a misdemeanor crime. This means that a reckless driving conviction will go on your criminal record permanently.

If your job or school requires a background check or criminal record check, you will need to list your reckless driving conviction. Virginia does not currently offer a way to expunge reckless driving records.

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’ll have to show up in the Virginia court listed on your ticket on your assigned day. As mentioned earlier, failing to show up to your court date can lead to additional charges.

The biggest difference for out-of-state drivers is that your state’s DMV might place a different point total on your license.

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.

Understanding Court Proceedings

Once you understand what penalties you could be facing, its 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 of weeks of the incident is most often the “date of first appearance.” If the date is further out, it is likely to be your actual trial date. If you aren’t sure, your lawyer, or the local county clerk’s office, can help you figure this out.

In either case, it’s important that you show up in person on that day. It’s possible to have a reckless driving hearing rescheduled, although this is uncommon.

If you can’t make your court day, it’s critically important that you talk to your lawyer immediately about rescheduling.

First Appearance

In some counties, defendants in reckless driving cases always have a first appearance before their trial. In any cases where jail time is a possibility, the court will normally require a first appearance.

A first appearance is a short court appointment where a judge or state attorney tells you the date of your trial and advises you of your rights. If you qualify for a court-appointed attorney, the judge will also let you know on this day.

Trial

Trials for reckless driving in Virginia take place in the local General District Court (in the city or county where you were cited). There, you may enter a plea of guilty, not guilty, or no contest.

If you have an attorney present, you may allow them to enter a plea for you. The judge will then make sure you understand the possible consequences of your plea, and if appropriate, the trial will commence.

Can I Fight My Reckless Driving Charge?

Depending on the circumstances of your reckless driving case, your lawyer may try for one of two options. If you have a strong argument for innocence, your attorney may attempt to get the case dismissed.

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 (20 miles over the posted speed limit or above 80 miles).

If the judge has a reason to doubt either of those facts, you may 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.

If the charge is reckless by speed for example, you could try showing that there is no physical proof you were speeding at all, or that the officer’s speed gun was calibrated incorrectly.

In cases where an accident has occurred, the state must also provide evidence that you were directly responsible. 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.

Unfortunately, most of the tricks you read about for avoiding tickets won’t actually work. For example, showing that your speedometer or GPS registered a lower speed is not typically considered grounds for dismissal.

That’s because the commonwealth has ruled that you are responsible for any mechanical errors. A faulty speedometer will not negate a reckless driving charge in Virginia.

Similarly, Virginia law states that you are responsible if your vehicle’s brakes fail. However, while faulty equipment might not help you avoid a conviction, it is a mitigating circumstance which can result in a reduced penalty.

Arguing for Lesser Charges

If your attorney can’t get your case dismissed outright, they’ll usually argue for lesser charges.

Typically, this involves asking the commonwealth’s attorney to find you guilty of improper driving. Relatively speaking, this option is good for everyone. A guilty plea can save everyone time and money, while you can avoid the harsher penalties of a misdemeanor charge by performing community service, or taking driving courses.

As we mentioned earlier, improper driving is a non-criminal offense, and does not carry a 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. A few common actions you can take for this defense include the following:

  • Depending on the district, committing to performing community service, or completing community service before the trial date, may help lessen your charge.
  • Taking a driver improvement course prior to your trial can help demonstrate that you have addressed the situation and feel remorse.
  • If you do intend to argue that your speedometer (or another mechanical element) failed, be sure to get the device calibrated before your court date.

Repeat Offenders

It is very important to avoid repeat reckless driving offenses. Because reckless driving stays on your criminal record forever, judges will take note of your prior convictions.

Virginia judges tend to treat repeat reckless drivers much more harshly, and are more likely to assign heavy fines and jail time.

Filing Appeals

How and Where to File

If you are unhappy with the result of your trial, you can file an appeal. However, you must act quickly. In Virginia, you may only appeal to the Circuit Court within ten days of the initial trial.

If your attorney thinks an appeal has the potential to succeed, you can fill out the paperwork immediately after your trial. Note that you cannot appeal a case where you’ve pleaded guilty.

If you choose to make an appeal, you’ll have to appear before your local Circuit Court. Generally, the court sets this date a few weeks after your initial trial.

This date is called a “docket call date.” On this date, the court will decide on a particular trial format, as well as schedule the trial in the near future.

You may elect to be tried by a judge (as before), or to have a jury trial. In either case, the trial will be “de novo,” which means it is treated as a new case. Neither you nor the court can (or should) reference your previous trial during the new case.

Should I Request a Jury Trial?

If you are appealing a conviction for reckless driving in Virginia, you may request a jury trial. This approach has both pros and cons.

On the one hand, juries can be considerably more lenient than judges. On the other, they are also much more unpredictable.

A jury can sometimes return a verdict—such as the maximum possible fine and a year of jail time—that a judge would never consider. In addition, a jury cannot reduce the charge to improper driving.

For that reason, most attorneys regard jury trials as somewhat risky, and prefer them only when the client has little to lose.

Remember that if the jury trial successfully convicts you, you’ll also have to pay the jury’s court costs. This can be quite expensive, especially when added to the regular legal fees and your original fine for reckless driving.

Conclusion

There are several things to remember about reckless driving in Virginia:

  • The commonwealth of Virginia defines reckless driving as driving unsafely, or driving more than 20 mph over the speed limit, OR over 80 mph.
  • If you’re charged with reckless driving, consult a lawyer immediately. Reckless driving in Virginia is a misdemeanor crime, not a traffic infraction.
  • Make sure to attend both your first appearance (if applicable) and your trial date. Failing to do so is a different crime that can result in more penalties.
  • If you are unhappy with your trial, talk to your lawyer right away about filing an appeal. Consider carefully whether requesting a jury trial is a good idea for your particular case, and be aware of the pros and cons of a bench trial versus a jury trial.

The most important thing to remember about reckless driving in Virginia is that you should treat the charge as a serious problem.

Although it may look like one, a summons for reckless driving is not a speeding ticket. Failing to  show up on your court date can, and will, result in serious consequences, including heavy fines, the suspension of your license, and possibly even jail time. A reckless driving conviction is misdemeanor that will stay on your record forever.

Instead of accepting this outcome, you should get in touch with a lawyer immediately. Even if they can’t get your case dismissed, your attorney will help you understand your options, such as arguing for improper driving. They’ll also work with you to appeal the case if the verdict doesn’t go your way.

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