We have all been there, you are late to work, trying to make up time, and you reach for your coffee and knock it over. You look down exasperated to see what a mess you have made and look up. And that’s when you see the vehicle in front of you slam its brakes and BANG. Your day just got worse.
A state trooper arrives on the scene and you explain what happened and he sympathizes. Insurance is exchanged and then the Trooper lets you know that he is going to charge you with Reckless Driving, a class 1 misdemeanor, punishable with up to 12 months in jail and a $2,500 fine. Not the way you were hoping this morning would work out.
That scenario plays out time and time again on Virginia highways. The good news is that you generally don’t hear about your friend doing 6 months in jail because of the fender bender they got into a few months back. The reason for that a conviction for Reckless Driving requires a clear showing of criminal intent which is very rarely found in a run-of-the-mill traffic accident.
Va. Code § 46.2-852, Reckless Driving (General) states that irrespective of the maximum speed limit permitted by law, a person is guilty of reckless driving who drives a vehicle on a highway recklessly or at a speed or in a manner that endangers life, limb or property. The obvious question is what does the word “recklessly” mean? The word could mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. My daughter thinks I am driving recklessly if I don’t have both hands on the steering wheel at all times. I am constantly getting a barrage of “Drive Safe Daddys” from my precocious four-year-old backseat driver. Luckily, we can probably all agree my daughter’s standard is a bit harsh.
To get greater clarity as to what a word means to the legal system, a lawyer will look to precedent. You often hear that word thrown around on legal TV shows. Precedent is written decisions by superior courts which provide everyone in the judicial system a better understanding of how the Courts can and will define a term and therefore how to apply it in your case. In Virginia, for the most part, we look at decisions from the Virginia Supreme Court and Court of Appeals.
A key decision on the term “recklessly,” was recently issued by the Supreme Court of Virginia in the case of Cady v. Commonwealth, 300 Va. 325 (2021). In Cady, the Supreme Court reiterated that intent that was necessary to be found guilty of Reckless Driving in Va. Code § 46.2-852. Cady restates the long-held standard that the appropriate men's rea (criminal intent) that must be proven is criminal recklessness.
The Supreme Court then defined “criminal recklessness” as a reckless disregard by the driver of a motor vehicle for the consequences of his act and an indifference to the safety of life, limb, or property of others. In legal speak, that requirement is more than “simple negligence” but less than gross negligence. The court further stated that an “objective standard” (reasonable person) applies to criminal recklessness and “may be found to exist when the defendant either knew or should have known the probable results of his acts.”
What’s the key takeaway from this? That example we talked about in the beginning is not driving recklessly. At worst, it can be described as simple negligence and per the Virginia State Supreme Court insufficient for a find of guilt for Reckless Driving. Hopefully, that information will provide some calm if you are currently frantically scrolling through the internet terrified you are about to do 12 months in the slammer for a simple car accident.
Accidents happen all the time, but can often lead to civil litigation even when injuries appear slight or nonexistent initially. As a result, even when an accident is minor, we always advise speaking to counsel to make sure your interest is protected.
HAVE YOU BEEN CHARGED WITH RECKLESS DRIVING IN GENERAL
If you have been charged with Reckless Driving under §46.2-852, you may have a defense if the circumstances as they reasonably appear do not establish criminal recklessness. The Commonwealth must prove that a reasonable person would find that you knew or should have known that the manner in which you were operating your vehicle showed a reckless disregard for the consequences of your act AND an indifference to the life, limb or property of another. By having to prove an intent element, the Commonwealth must not just show how your vehicle was being driven but also that you knew or should have known the consequences of your actions and an indifference to the life, limb, and property of another person. By having to prove the men's rea element, the Commonwealth sometimes faces a burden they are unable to carry to obtain a Reckless Driving conviction.