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A criminal offense in all 50 states plus Washington, D.C., reckless driving is typically categorized as a misdemeanor. However, aggravating circumstances may push the charge into felony territory.
Even though reckless driving is illegal in every state, penalties for the charge vary, though the types of punishments are fairly common. These include fines, incarceration, and driver's license suspension.
What is Reckless Driving?
Each state defines reckless driving in its own way. However, though the verbiage varies by statute, the essential definition remains constant.
Driving recklessly, or with a reckless disregard for the safety of others, includes willful disregard for other people or their property. It may include driving too fast, or in a way that is careless, negligent, reckless, and without due caution for the safety of others.
One of the key defining characteristics of reckless driving is that it represents a deviation from accepted standards of care reasonably expected of drivers. In addition, the driver must demonstrate a willful disregard for the consequences of reckless driving.
Determining whether the driver's conduct qualifies as reckless depends on the unique circumstances in each case.
What Does the Court Consider in a Reckless Driving Case?
As far as criminal statute, reckless driving is an anomaly, as it does not have a precise definition. Typically, courts require criminal statute to be clear and definite so that the average person can understand it. The fact that a charge of reckless driving depends on individual circumstances precludes having a precise definition.
The court considers a variety of factors when making the determination whether a driver acted recklessly. This includes:
- Time of day
- Weather conditions
- Whether other people were present
- Whether animals were present
- Whether the driver was familiar with the area
Even though a driver must demonstrate a willful, active disregard for others' safety, the prosecutor only needs to prove that the driver should have known his or her driving was unsafe. What's more, the state only has to prove that someone could have been in danger – including the person charged with reckless driving – not that someone actually was in danger. This means that you can receive a reckless driving charge even when no other drivers are on the road.
Some moving violations qualify as per se reckless driving, meaning that they automatically earn a charge of reckless driving. These include:
- Illegal street racing
- Passing a school bus
- Passing at a railroad crossing
- Speeding more than 20 MPH over the limit
What are the Penalties for a Reckless Driving Conviction?
Though the severity of penalties vary by state, the types of penalties levied are fairly standard. Examples include:
- A first offense reckless driving conviction in Alabama is a misdemeanor, punishable by at least five days in jail with a maximum sentence of 90 days. The minimum fine is $25, with a maximum fine of $500. An administrative hearing determines whether your license is suspended, and you receive six points on your license. A second conviction doubles jail time penalties and the minimum fine.
- A reckless driving conviction in Alaska is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to 12 months in jail, with fines up to $1,000. You receive 10 points on your license, and it may be either suspended or revoked.
- California has a separate statute for reckless driving causing bodily injury. Conviction under this statute results in a minimum sentence of 30 days, with a maximum sentence of six months. Fines range from the minimum of $220 to a maximum of $1,000. You receive two points on your license and it is automatically suspended.
- A reckless driving conviction in Oklahoma is a misdemeanor, punishable by up at least five days in jail with a maximum sentence of 90 days. The minimum fine is $100, with a maximum fine of $500. You receive six points on your license, and the court decides whether to suspend it.
- Wisconsin does not categorize reckless driving. Conviction penalties depend on the extent of damages, if any. Fines range between $25 and $500. You receive six points on your license, and it may be suspended.
Another factor influencing penalties for reckless driving is aggravating circumstances (as well as mitigating factors, though these are less common, as reckless driving is determined on a case-by-case basis). If you caused serious bodily harm to a person, damaged property, or caused someone's death due to reckless driving, penalties grow exponentially.
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