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Reckless Driving Generally In Virginia
Reckless Driving Generally In Virginia
27 January 2021

Reckless Driving Generally in Virginia is punished under Virginia Code §46.2-852. That law states:

Va Code §46.2-852. Reckless driving; general rule.

Irrespective of the maximum speeds permitted by law, any person who drives a vehicle on any highway recklessly or at a speed or in a manner so as to endanger the life, limb, or property of any person shall be guilty of reckless driving.

Under this law, the police officer must be able to prove that you drove in a manner that endangered the life, limb, or property of any person, including yourself. This can be proven by your speed, erratic driving, crazy driving, distracted driving, impaired driving, inattentive driving, impatient driving, or risk-taking driving. There is no specific driving behavior that you need to display in order to be convicted of Reckless Driving Generally. Instead, it could be any driving behavior that the judge or jury considers as reckless driving. This law is the "catch all" version of Reckless Driving offenses. There is no requirement that you get into an accident in order to be convicted of this offense.

For example, it is considered Reckless Driving Generally in Virginia if you accelerate too quickly, drive too fast for the road or weather conditions at the time, tailgate other cars, constantly change lanes, weave in-and-out of traffic, straddle multiple lanes, drive on the shoulder of the road, drive on the opposite side of the road, fall asleep behind the wheel, or are distracted to a point where your driving behavior fails.

If you were charged with Reckless Driving Generally because you were in a car accident, there is case law that holds that the mere happening of an accident does not automatically equal reckless driving. Namely, in the case of Powers v. Commonwealth, 117 S.E.2d 628, 211 Va. 386 (1970), the Supreme Court of Virginia held that "the mere happening of an accident does not give rise to an inference of reckless driving."

In Powers, the defendant’s car traveled in an erratic course for more than 900 feet and struck a tree with such force that the motor was wrenched from the defendant's vehicle and the defendant was thrown from his vehicle and injured. Despite these facts, the court stated that this did not create an inference of reckless driving because there was no evidence of how and why the accident happened. The court stated that the momentum of the vehicle and its erratic course could have been attributed to other causes and, because of that, the evidence leaves much to speculation and conjecture and does not exclude every reasonable hypothesis of innocence. As a result, the court dismissed the Reckless Driving ticket against the defendant in Powers.

The Powers case establishes the law that just because you were in an accident does not automatically mean that you were reckless driving. Instead, the police officer needs to prove that your driving behavior was in fact reckless.

Furthermore, in the case of Cady v. Commonwealth, Record No. 1595-19-4, Court of Appeals of Virginia (2020), the Court of Appeals of Virginia extended and clarified the law established in Powers. This case is fresh off the press in 2020. The court in Cady held that the police officer not only needs to prove that your driving behavior was in fact reckless (as required by Powers), the police officer needs to prove that you had actual knowledge of the danger and then chose to disregard that danger. The significance of this case is that the Court of Appeals of Virginia clarifies that there is in fact a mens rea requirement (i.e., an “intent” requirement) to prove a Reckless Driving Generally case.

In Cady, the defendant — on a clear day while driving 2 mph above the posted speed limit with no erratic driving or distractions — rammed into the back of a motorcycle that was stopped, killing the driver of the motorcycle. The court held that although the defendant should have known of the danger, the crime of Reckless Driving requires proof that the defendant had actual knowledge of the danger. The evidence in Cady showed that the defendant did not see the motorcycle, to no fault of his own. The defendant was not speeding, was not driving erratically (weaving, etc.), was not intoxicated, and was not distracted inside his vehicle. Based on that, the court held that the defendant did not have actual knowledge of the danger because the defendant’s own driving behavior did not create danger. For that reason, the court dismissed the Reckless Driving ticket against the defendant in Cady.

The Cady case establishes the law that it is not enough if the police officer merely proves that you “should have known” of the danger and then chose to disregard it — the police officer needs to prove that you had “actual knowledge” of the danger and then chose to disregard it.

If you were charged with Reckless Driving Generally because you were intoxicated, there is case law that holds that being intoxicated does not automatically equal reckless driving. Namely, in the case of Thompson v. Commonwealth, 27 Va. App. 720, 724, 501 S.E.2d 438, 440 (1998), the Court of Appeals of Virginia held that "evidence of intoxication is a factor that might bear upon proof of dangerousness or reckless driving in a given case, but does not, of itself, prove reckless driving."

In Thompson, the defendant crashed into a utility pole. The police officer arrived on scene after the accident happened and noted that the defendant had glassy eyes, was unsteady on his feet, had a strong odor of alcohol about his person, admitted to recently drinking 4 beers and 2 shots of liquor, and was unable to successfully perform a series of field sobriety tests. However, there was no evidence regarding the defendant’s driving behavior or the “manner and circumstances” of the defendant’s driving. Guided by Powers, the court stated that such “circumstances...do not give rise to an inference that [defendant] drove...in a reckless manner.” Notably, the court stated that "evidence of intoxication is a factor that might bear upon proof of dangerousness or reckless driving in a given case, but does not, of itself, prove reckless driving. One may be both drunk and reckless, or reckless though not drunk, or under the influence of intoxicants and yet drive carefully." Thus, although the defendant was intoxicated, there was no evidence regarding the defendant’s driving behavior (as required by Powers). As a result, the court dismissed the Reckless Driving ticket against the defendant in Thompson.

The Thompson cases establishes the law that just because you were intoxicated does not automatically mean that you were reckless driving. Instead, the police officer needs to prove that your driving behavior was in fact reckless.

By Michael Huff, Esq.