I was charged with reckless driving by speed — do I need to hire a lawyer for this?
As a traffic and criminal defense lawyer defending people throughout Northern Virginia courts for many years, I have been asked this question countless times. While some law firms will try to scare you into hiring them immediately by suggesting you are going to jail for up to 12 months, the truly correct answer on whether to retain counsel for a reckless driving is…. “it depends.” It depends on what your concerns and goals are, the facts and evidence and legal issues you may have, your current and future employment concerns, your driving record, in which county your case is, and which judge and prosecutor may be involved in deciding your case.
Therefore, rather than try to give a “one size fits all” answer, I’ll instead discuss several of the more important considerations for anyone who has been given the yellow Virginia Uniform Summons accusing them of “reckless driving.”
These considerations include the following:
- The likelihood you will be found guilty of reckless driving by the judge;
- Assuming you are convicted, what sentence might the court impose in a reckless driving case; and
- Once a conviction is reported to the DMV, what are the DMV consequences (including demerit points, effect on insurance and effect on job).
What are the chances that you will be found guilty of reckless driving?
In deciding whether to hire a lawyer for your reckless driving case, consider the range of outcomes. The court could find you “guilty as charged” of reckless driving, or “guilty” of a less serious offense (for example, speeding, failing to obey highway signs or improper driving), or possibly “not guilty” of anything. Any case’s outcome of course depends on its facts, legal issues and evidence.
Do not make the mistake of expecting the judge to dismiss or reduce your case automatically.
Many people have the misconception that the Virginia court will have some traffic court program that you can be ordered into to get a better result. Unlike some other states, Virginia has no statewide statutory first offender program where one can expect to get a dismissal or reduction based on a clean driving record and completion of a driving school. Therefore, don’t think a traffic attorney is unneeded because you expect there’s some traffic school program the court will put you in to avoid a reckless conviction — the fact is that the Code of Virginia does not have any statutory program for reckless driving or speeding cases.
Another wrong assumption is that the judge will have mercy on you and will reduce or dismiss your case.
Perhaps your situation is truly exceptional, and the judge will be moved to treat your case as unique. But the reality of traffic court is that many people have the similar explanations or pleas for mercy, and a judge who hears the same thing repeatedly may not be so moved. Further, what sounds like a reasonable explanation to you might actually backfire. For example, perhaps you think the judge will understand that you didn’t realize how fast you were going because you were distracted by loud kids in your car. However, by highlighting this, a judge might feel compelled to impose greater punishment because driving too fast with kids in the car is worse. An experienced traffic lawyer will have an informed opinion of the best way to present your case.
Also, the outcome is affected to some degree by which county your case is in, as well as which judge you appear before.
The critical point here is that each county is different, and each judge is different. Be cautious of comparing case results with other people — what happened in your friend’s Prince William reckless case may be of little use in predicting what will happen in your Fairfax case. Even within one county, case outcomes can be widely different based on which judge or prosecutor or officer was involved — Fairfax GDC Court has about 10 judges and about 25 prosecutors, each with various views, personalities, and inclinations. Further, certain judges are stricter on reckless speed, while others tend to show more mercy in certain cases. Some judges are more receptive to technical arguments and evidentiary objections, while others may be quicker to accept the officer’s testimony as adequate.
Finally, in some courts, a person representing him/herself (“pro se”) gets the chance to plea bargain with the prosecutor in the hallway before any trial; but in other counties, a pro se defendant has no such chance and instead deals only with the judge.
As a general rule, it’s better to have two bites at the apple (plea negotiate with a prosecutor, and if that does not result in an agreeable compromise, then take the case to the judge). Pro se defendants should be careful in talking with the prosecutor because if the case cannot settle, then anything you said to the prosecutor can be used against you at trial.
As you can see from the above, there are numerous considerations when you ask yourself the first question “what are the chances I can win this?”
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