Reckless Driving Charges and Penalties

The definition of “reckless driving” and the consequences of a conviction.

Reckless driving, in some form, is illegal in every state. But states define reckless driving differently and reckless driving is sometimes a generic term covering many types of driving violations. Depending on the circumstances, a reckless driving violation could be an infraction, punishable by a nominal fine, or a more serious criminal offense that carries severe penalties such as possible jail time, license suspension, and fines in the hundreds or thousands of dollars. This article explains the different types of reckless driving violations and some of the possible penalties that could result from a conviction.

Definitions of "Reckless Driving"

General reckless driving definitions. In the majority of states, reckless driving is defined something like the following: operating a vehicle with a willful or wanton disregard for the safety of other persons or property. This definition may seem obtuse or too broad to define exactly what constitutes a violation. And many drivers have attacked reckless driving statutes in court arguing these definitions are too vague to give notice of what's prohibited.

However, courts have generally rejected these kinds of arguments and found that reckless driving laws adequately define what amounts to a violation. Courts have commented that, in determining whether a motorist violated a reckless driving law, judges should consider factors like speed, driving patterns, weather, and traffic conditions.

Specific reckless driving statutes. The laws of many states also contain lists of specific actions (driving violations) that are considered "per se" reckless driving. For example, using a hill or incline in Illinois to make a vehicle become airborne is considered reckless driving, no matter how "safely" a driver performs such a maneuver. Examples of per se reckless driving violations, depending on the state, might also include:

  • exceeding speed limit by a certain amount
  • "embracing another" while driving in a manner that prevents unhampered operation
  • unlawfully passing a school bus
  • eluding a law enforcement officer
  • unlawfully passing on a curve
  • street racing, and
  • blocking another driver from lawfully passing.

Typically, states that have per se reckless driving violations also have the more general provisions in their laws that prohibit driving in a manner that creates a substantial risk of harming persons or property.

Reckless Driving Charges and Conviction Consequences

Depending on the circumstances and jurisdiction (the state where the violation occurs), reckless driving can be classified as a traffic infraction, misdemeanor, or felony. Generally, traffic infractions aren't considered criminal offenses, whereas misdemeanors and felonies are types of crimes.

Reckless Driving as an Infraction

A few states classify reckless driving as a traffic infraction. Because traffic infractions aren't considered crimes, they generally don't carry the possibility of jail time. Typically, a reckless driving infraction can result in only a fine and traffic violation demerit points (in states that have traffic point systems). However, in states where reckless driving in generally an infraction, repeat violations can sometimes result in license suspension or misdemeanor charges.

Reckless Driving as a Misdemeanor

In most states, reckless driving is a misdemeanor. Depending on the circumstances and jurisdiction, a misdemeanor reckless driving conviction might carry something like up to a year in jail and a maximum of $500 in fines. The Department of Motor Vehicles might also suspend the driver's license for a short period of time. Generally, repeat violations will result in more severe penalties.

Felony Charges for Reckless Driving

In some circumstances, reckless driving can be charged as a felony. Factors that might elevate a reckless driving violation to a felony include injuries, property damage, and having prior convictions. For example, a second reckless driving conviction in Rhode Island is a felony. And in Florida, reckless driving that results in great bodily injury is a class 4 felony.

Wet Reckless Plea Bargains in DUI Cases

In some states, it's possible for drivers who are charged with driving under the influence (DUI) charges to plea bargain for a reckless driving charge. (Generally, reckless driving is a less serious offense than a DUI.) When a DUI is pled down to a reckless driving charge, it's often called a "wet reckless."

Although a wet reckless conviction generally carries less severe penalties than a DUI, some states impose additional penalties for reckless driving charges that involved drugs or alcohol. So, in these states, the penalties for a wet reckless are less serious than those for drunk driving but more serious than those for a normal reckless driving conviction. For example, some states require drivers convicted of a wet reckless to install ignition interlock devices (IID) in their vehicles, which isn't typically a consequence of a reckless driving conviction that doesn't involve drugs or alcohol.

Reckless Driving Related to Evading the Police

In some cases of reckless driving, the driver is actually trying to get away from pursuing law enforcement. In these situations, the driver is typically committing two separate but related crimes: reckless driving and evading the police.

Criminal Charge for Evading Law Enforcement in a Car

Every state prohibits running from the police. However, the offense goes by a variety of names, including "fleeing," "attempting to elude," "evading the police," and "failing to stop at the direction of police."

Regardless of nomenclature, the violation generally has three basic parts that prosecutors must prove to get a conviction:

  • Command for the driver to stop. The officer must communicate a command to the driver to pull over. Officers normally do this by activating lights and sirens. But an officer might also use hand signals, verbal commands, or a traffic whistle.
  • Officer identifiable as law enforcement. The officer directing the driver to pull over must be easily identifiable as law enforcement. Normally, prosecutors can prove this element by showing the officer was in uniform and operating a police vehicle. This element doesn't require anything specific. For instance, the patrol car doesn't have to be the standard black and white Crown Victoria. However, the prosecution must prove the officer's overall appearance would have enabled the driver to clearly ascertain that the stop was being initiated by an officer of the law.
  • Failure to stop. The final element the prosecution must prove is that the driver failed to bring his or her vehicle to a timely stop. This factor certainly involves some grey area as drivers are required to stop promptly but road and traffic conditions can sometimes make it unsafe to pull over immediately. Generally, when the driver does delay in stopping, the issue for the jury is whether the driver was trying to evade the officer or just finding an appropriate place to pull over.

Simply avoiding law enforcement isn't a crime. However, doing so can sometimes arouse an officer's suspicion. For instance, making a U-turn right before a DUI checkpoint might lead officers to think you're under the influence or trying to hide some other criminal activity.

Penalties for Evading Police in a Vehicle

The penalties for evading the police vary depending on the circumstances. Generally, evading police is a misdemeanor or felony and carries penalties that tend to be more severe than those for reckless driving convictions.