Every time I am in court, I see people who appear for a reckless driving charge without a lawyer, and lose. No one likes spending money on an attorney, but a reckless driving trial is not the time to be cheap. In Virginia, a reckless driving conviction may cost a lot more than you expect. Here are 10 reasons why anyone charged with reckless driving should talk to a reckless driving attorney before going to traffic court.
1. Reckless Driving Is a Serious Class 1 Misdemeanor, NOT a Traffic Ticket
If you have been accused of reckless driving, you have been accused of committing a crime. Reckless driving is a Class 1 misdemeanor, which is the most serious type of misdemeanor in Virginia. Other Class 1 misdemeanors include assault and battery, DUI, possession of a concealed weapon, and petty larceny.
Reckless driving can result in up to 12 months in jail and a six-month suspension of your driver’s license. A reckless driving conviction can cost a driver their job if they drive for work, and it can cost them their security clearance. A driver may be forced to disclose their conviction on background checks, job applications, and applications for higher education. Reckless driving may also prevent a driver from enlisting in the military or becoming an attorney.
A reckless driving conviction cannot be expunged. Once you have been convicted of reckless driving, it is on your criminal record forever. The only way to clear your record is to have the charges dismissed or dropped.
Reckless driving is a six-demerit-point violation in Virginia and remains on one’s driving record for 11 years. If a driver has a less than perfect driving record, he may be in jeopardy of having his license revoked by the DMV or being placed on driving probation. Probation is automatic for minors convicted of reckless driving.
Having a reckless driving conviction on your driving record also means that police will be less likely to give you warnings for simple traffic violations, and prosecutors and courts will be less understanding toward you in the future.
2. Good Attorneys Pay for Themselves
A single reckless driving charge can cost a driver over $4,000 in fines, court costs, insurance premiums, and DMV fees. The maximum fine for a reckless driving charge is $2,500. Court costs are about $70 and DMV license reinstatement fees are another $175, but the biggest expense comes through increased insurance premiums. Some insurance providers will double premiums for a first-time reckless driving conviction. Many insurance providers treat reckless driving convictions the same as drunk driving convictions. These insurance hikes usually last three years, and can cost a driver more than $1,500.
The people most likely to experience an insurance hike are the very best drivers who are paying very little. This is especially likely if they are covered by a preferred provider or are receiving a good driver discount. The lower your premiums are now, the more you have to lose.
Drivers who already have a very bad record may lose their standard insurance coverage and will be required to get high-risk driver insurance (SR-22 insurance).
Because of the costly insurance premiums, many employers will not hire a person with a reckless driving conviction if the job involves driving a company vehicle. If you are in jeopardy of an insurance premium increase due to a reckless driving charge or if such a charge could affect your employment opportunities, hiring a good reckless driving attorney can easily save you much more than it costs.
In some cases, drivers can save a lot of money by sending an attorney to court in their place. For drivers who do not live in Virginia or who cannot afford to take off work to go to court, hiring an attorney may cost less than appearing in court.
When you consider the fines, insurance effects, and time and travel associated with a reckless driving conviction, hiring a good attorney can usually save a driver more than it costs.
3. You May Not Have to Show up at Trial If You Have an Attorney
When a driver is charged with reckless driving, the police officer has a choice to arrest the driver and take him immediately to jail or to issue a summons ordering him to appear in court. The yellow piece of paper that you signed, which looks exactly like a traffic ticket, is called the Virginia Uniform Summons.
In many cases, a defendant who was issued a Virginia Uniform Summons may send an attorney to appear on his behalf instead of coming to court himself. The attorney can either try the case or negotiate a plea without the defendant being present.
This ability can be very convenient for the many out-of-state drivers charged in Virginia or for any others who cannot come to court.
4. Lone Defendants Are Treated Differently Than Those With Attorneys
Some jurisdictions in Virginia do not allow unrepresented defendants to negotiate a plea. Not having an opportunity to negotiate a plea is a major disadvantage. By having an opportunity to negotiate, the represented driver increases the chance of having their case assigned to someone who will treat them favorably.
Besides negotiation opportunities, almost every jurisdiction gives represented defendants scheduling preference on the day of trial. This means that the judge calls your case only when your attorney is ready instead of whenever your file appears on the judge’s desk. This means that in some jurisdictions a driver without an attorney cannot be late to court, cannot step out to go to the bathroom, cannot go to check the parking meter for fear of their case being called while they are gone.
5. The Day of Court Can Be Extremely Confusing and Chaotic Without an Attorney
Courts in Virginia can be extremely chaotic. On a busy day in the Fairfax County courthouse there can be over thirty courtrooms operating at the same time with six courtrooms just for adult traffic cases. The judges assigned to traffic court have three and a half hours to complete 150-200 traffic cases. If they are lucky they can finish in time to grab lunch before they must begin the afternoon felony docket. A judge in that situation has an average of 60-84 seconds to complete each traffic case.
Things move fast in court. Judges, bailiffs, and prosecutors are often too busy doing their jobs to stop and help unrepresented defendants. Judges use legal slang in court, and few people know what is going on if they do not have an attorney. Unrepresented defendants are often convicted before they even realize that their trial is over.
One of the saddest things about being a defense attorney is sitting in court each day and watching dozens of unrepresented people lose out to the system because they did not have a lawyer.
6. The Learning Curve Is Brutal Without an Attorney
The judicial system is not forgiving. If a defendant does not submit his paperwork correctly and in a timely manner, it goes in the trash. If you do not make the right request to the right person, you will not get what you want.
Much of being an attorney involves knowing how the system works, and the vast majority of the court rules are not written down. Tradition, case law and etiquette govern much of what goes on in court.
By the time an unrepresented driver stands up before the judge, that driver has already lost many of the opportunities that could have made a difference in his case. Many times, the unrepresented driver spends hours preparing for his defense, only to be informed that his evidence is not in the right format or that he did not fill out the proper paperwork. The learning curve is brutal without a reckless driving attorney.
7. Without an Attorney You Never Know What Kind of Case You Have Until It Is Too Late
Some people do not get an attorney because they think there is nothing an attorney can do for them. Do not be fooled. Reckless driving cases can be extremely complicated and difficult to prosecute. There is no reason not to get at least a free consultation from a reckless driving attorney.
8. Do Not Enter the Red-Tape Jungle Alone
How do I get a restricted driver’s license? Where do I pay the court costs and fines? How do I arrange a payment plan for my court costs and fines? How do I get my license back? What happens if I am sick and miss my court date? What do I do if I get a traffic ticket while on probation? How do I change my court date?
I could list a hundred questions people ask when they enter Virginia’s judicial system. The sheer amount of paperwork and bureaucracy involved in a simple reckless driving case is staggering. Do not enter the red-tape jungle without a guide. You may never be seen again.
Red tape is not only frustrating and tedious; it can also lead to your arrest. One of the most important things a good attorney can do is ensure that you comply with your probation. Many serious reckless driving convictions (especially those at high speeds or that involve serious accidents) come with a lot of suspended jail time and fines. This suspension means that if you fail to comply with all the conditions of your probation, you risk going to jail and paying the extra fines.
I have seen plenty of drivers go to jail for simple, little mistakes they made while trying to take care of their probation requirements themselves.
Make sure that you have an attorney who will walk you through the post-trial paperwork and not merely represent you at your trial.
9. You Have Better Things to Do
Your attorney may be able to have the court waive your appearance in court. This means that your attorney can appear in court without you needing to be present. If you do not live near Fairfax County or if missing work is not an option, retaining an attorney may save you a lot of money and time.
Even if appearing in court is not a problem, drivers should ask themselves whether they want to spend the next few months dealing with their reckless driving charges or living their lives. Between work and family, the reckless driving defendant is also dealing with the possibility of losing his driver’s license, going to jail, or even losing his job. Do you want to spend that time trying to figure out how the court system works as well?
Hiring a good attorney not only makes good financial and strategic sense, but it is an enormous emotional relief during a very stressful time. It can be invaluable to know that someone you trust is taking care of your case while you take care of the rest of your life.
10. You Probably Do Not Qualify for a Court Appointed Attorney.
Many people ask me about hiring their own attorney versus applying for a court-appointed attorney. In order to get a court appointed attorney your need to meet two requirements: 1) you need to be extremely poor and 2) you need to be in serious danger of going to jail.
Only the legally indigent (poor) are provided with free attorneys. In order to be declared indigent in the Commonwealth of Virginia, you must make less than or equal to 125% of the Federal Poverty Line. The Federal Poverty Line is adjusted by how many people are in your family. The poverty line for one person is $9,800. The line for two people is $13,200, for three is $16,600, and for four is $20,000. Hence, if the defendant’s family (of four) has an income of more than $25,000 ($20,000 x 1.25), then the defendant is too rich to get a court-appointed attorney. For most people, a court appointed attorney is not a possibility.
Even if you are legally indigent, you cannot get a court appointed attorney unless the prosecution is seeking a jail sentence. However, the judge may revoke your license without offering you a court appointed attorney. If a judge offers you a court appointed attorney that means you are likely going to jail if you are found guilty.
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