Many people who get a reckless driving ticket in Virginia have never had to appear in court before. Even if you’ve been to court, you still may not know what to expect in the courtroom. It’s daunting!
Here are some simple pointers about being in court for a reckless driving ticket.
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Your first court appearance for a reckless driving case creates confusion for a lot of people. Is it an arraignment? Is it trial? What is arraignment anyway?
First off, what is arraignment? Arraignment is an initial hearing that is held in cases where jail time is a possible outcome. At arraignment, the judge explains that you’re facing the possibility of jail, so you have the right to an attorney.
The judge will explain three options:
- You can hire your own attorney.
- You can waive your right to an attorney.
- You can ask for a court-appointed attorney.
The court will only appoint an attorney if: A. you request one, and B. you qualify as “indigent,” which means you have a low enough income (according to the state’s formula) to show that you cannot afford to hire an attorney.
But will you have an arraignment?
Maybe, maybe not. Clear, right? That’s unfortunately the way the legal system works.
Frankly, most reckless driving tickets aren’t set for arraignment. Most likely, your case will be set directly for trial.
Around the Fredericksburg area, your case would normally be set for arraignment only at higher speeds, such as 100 mph in a 65 mph zone.
There are a few easy ways to determine if you’re having an arraignment:
- Check your ticket. It may say “arraignment” near the court date area.
- Call the court. The clerk’s office can quickly tell you if you’re set for arraignment or trial.
- Call an attorney. I can usually tell people if they’re set for arraignment simply based on the designated hearing time.
If you have an arraignment, once you tell the judge what you want to do about an attorney, he’ll give you a trial date to come back to court. In some cases, if you waive your right to an attorney, the judge might ask if you want to simply have your trial that day; however, that isn’t normally required.
After the arraignment, your next court date should be your actual trial date. What happens then?
If your case is not set for arraignment, it will be set immediately for trial (or an “adjudicatory” hearing). You’ll get a full-fledged trial if you want it, but it’s not like you’ve seen on television.
Do you have to appear?
Virginia tickets have a box underneath your signature that says “You may avoid coming to court only if this block is checked and all instructions on defendant’s copy are followed.” For most reckless driving cases, that box will NOT be checked, and many officers line through the text for good measure.
The default rule for reckless driving is that you have to appear in court. That’s because it’s a misdemeanor charge. You can’t just prepay it and be done.
However, depending upon the specific case and the local court, an attorney may be able to appear on your behalf. I do this routinely for clients who are charged with reckless driving by speed at speeds less than 100 mph and 30 mph or less over the speed limit. For out of state drivers, this can save you time and travel expenses. Even for Virginia drivers, appearing in court can cost you an entire day’s work; hiring an attorney can save your day off for something fun.
You should definitely consult with an attorney to determine if your appearance can be waived.
Who hears the case?
In Virginia, your first trial for a misdemeanor like reckless driving will take place in the General District Court (or Juvenile & Domestic Relations Court for juveniles).
Importantly, you don’t get to have a jury trial in these courts (that’s a possibility on appeal). All cases in General District Court are heard by a judge only. He’ll decide if you’re guilty beyond a reasonable doubt and what sentence to give you.
But it doesn’t have to end there. If you’re not happy with the outcome in your first trial, you have the absolute right to appeal the case for a brand new trial in the Circuit Court with a different judge.
Will the prosecutor be involved?
Virginia calls the prosecutor the “Commonwealth’s Attorney.” They represent the Commonwealth in prosecuting crimes, like reckless driving. They are equivalent to the DA or “District Attorney” that some states have.
The Commonwealth’s Attorney may or may not be involved in your case. It depends upon the nature of the reckless driving charge and the local court. In many of Virginia’s more rural jurisdictions, the prosecutor’s office is too understaffed to handle every traffic offense that comes through the court. In those areas, they only get involved in the higher stakes offenses, such as reckless driving cases where they may want to seek jail time.
In cases where the prosecutor does not get involved, the ticketing officer will handle the case himself.
Knowing whether or not you’ll be facing the Commonwealth’s Attorney can be critical in your case. On one hand, they might know the law better than the officer. However, they also have wide discretion to negotiate plea agreements.
It always concerns me when I see non-local attorneys come into the Fredericksburg area courts, trying to find the prosecutor for cases where they don’t get involved. Knowing who will be handling your case at court is a critical step in preparation and determining how to get the best possible result. This is yet another reason that I always recommend finding a local attorney who regularly handles cases like yours in the necessary court.
Act and dress appropriately
General District Courts are somewhat informal, especially compared to Virginia Circuit Court. However, it’s still a court of law. The man in the black robe can send you to jail. Real jail.
When you’re in court, whether or not you have an attorney, you should conduct yourself appropriately. That begins with dressing properly. I recommend at least business casual attire. For gentlemen, I recommend dress pants and a dress shirt. If ladies wear a skirt or dress, be sure to keep it conservative. Definitely do not wear shorts or revealing clothing.
Any time you’re in the courthouse, be sure to be on your best behavior. The judges notice people who are rude and disruptive; you don’t want to be noticed in that way.
Pay attention to the signs in the courthouse and follow all instructions by court personnel. For example, you probably won’t be allowed to bring your cell phone or other electronics into the building. Also, some judges want you to answer verbally when your case is called; if you don’t, your case may be passed until the end of the docket!
Be sure to ask courthouse personnel, or your attorney, to clarify any rules that are unclear so you are completely prepared for your court appearance.
If you are handicapped, understand little or no English, or need other special accommodations in court, you should always contact the court in advance. Most Virginia courts have Spanish interpreters readily available, but other languages require advance planning. Other special accommodations may be able to be arranged in advance on a case-by-case basis.
When the judge calls your case, he’ll most likely say something like this:
“Mr. Smith, you are charged with reckless driving, 89 in a 65 zone. How do you plead?”
You have three choices:
- Guilty – admitting that you did it.
- Not guilty – requiring the Commonwealth to prove it.
- No contest – not fighting the evidence, but not admitting guilt.
If you look at the way I wrote those descriptions, there are subtle differences in each plea. Pleading guilty can end all discussion of the case, and the judge might proceed directly to sentencing. It’s admitting that you are in fact guilty of reckless driving as charged. The judge may also ask if you have anything that you’d like to say about the case, which can give you a chance to ask for an alternate outcome.
Pleading not guilty doesn’t mean you’re innocent. It means that you are exercising your right to have a trial and confront the witnesses against you. Your trial will most likely begin right after you enter a “not guilty” plea (more on that in the next section).
A “no contest” plea fits in the middle, in my opinion. It admits that the Commonwealth can prove the charge, but it doesn’t admit that you did in fact do what they claim. The judge may ask the officer for a brief overview of the facts, and you should have an opportunity to briefly say something about the charge.
The officer’s testimony
If you plead not guilty, the judge will normally turn to the officer and ask him to talk about the case. The officer will then recite a fairly brief narrative of what happened. If the Commonwealth’s Attorney is involved in the case, they may guide the officer through his testimony.
During the officer’s testimony, you (or your attorney) can object to evidence he offers if there is a legal basis to do so. However, most of the time you should just listen carefully to what he says.
Once the officer finishes, it’s your chance to ask him questions. You don’t have to ask anything, but that’s your one and only chance. If you do speak, be sure you’re actually asking him a question. You’ll get a chance to tell your side later.
You don’t have to testify. You have the right under the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to not incriminate yourself. But if you choose to say something about the case, you get a chance.
The judge will have you take the oath, and you’ll get to talk. Be sure to keep it on target. I always tell my clients to keep it brief. The judge is busy, and he has many more cases to hear. Hit the high points and keep it to the facts.
If you have hired an attorney, there may be a few other parts to your reckless driving trial. Sometimes there are pre-trial arguments to be made. For example, there may be an argument to keep out certain evidence or throw out the traffic stop altogether.
This is where your attorney’s preparation truly shines. I work with my clients in advance to have the facts nailed down, and I research any applicable legal issues to be able to argue them on the spot in court.
One of my favorite arguments is what Virginia calls a “motion to strike.” After the Commonwealth’s evidence is submitted (typically just the ticketing officer’s testimony), the Commonwealth must have laid out a basic case that you committed reckless driving. They need to have all the pieces on the table. If they’re missing a piece at that point, we can argue that the judge should dismiss the case right then. And if a critical piece (such as radar calibrations) was omitted, we should win!
At the end of the case, there will usually be a final argument. This is where you argue something like reasonable doubt.
While you can argue a motion to strike or closing argument yourself, these are definitely areas where having an attorney can pay off. A local traffic attorney should know how the judge responds to certain types of arguments and how to best craft those arguments for your unique case.
If the judge finds the evidence is enough to support some conviction (either reckless driving or a lesser offense, like improper driving), he’ll need to impose a sentence.
There may be a brief argument at this point about attending driver improvement, doing community service, or maybe some other alternative punishment. However, this is where the rubber meets the road. Once the sentence is handed down, the case is over.
Fine, jail, and getting home
If you owe any money in fines and costs to the court, you have at least 30 calendar days to pay. The clerks may require you to sign a form before you leave, but you don’t have to pay anything on your court date. If you don’t pay on time, your license will be suspended for non-payment.
If you get jail time, you will be immediately put in the custody of the sheriff to serve your time. Fortunately, we have options to delay that when necessary. A local attorney will be familiar with the local court system and can help you setup your jail time to fit around your work schedule.
If the judge suspends your license, it normally gets suspended immediately upon conviction. If you don’t have someone to drive you home, some judges will delay the suspension so you can get home. You should be sure to speak with your attorney and/or the clerk’s office to understand when your suspension goes into effect and if you have permission to drive home.