Reckless Driving Under California Vehicle Code Section 23103
California criminalizes reckless driving under Section 23103 of the Vehicle Code (“VC 23103”). In this section, we will discuss the elements of Reckless driving, some possible defenses, and the types of punishment that can follow a conviction for reckless driving.
How can I be convicted of reckless driving under VC 23103?
In order to convict someone of reckless driving under VC 23103, the prosecution must show, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendant
- Drove a vehicle
- On a highway OR “off-street parking facility”
- With willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property
If, after hearing all of the evidence, the jury has any reasonable doubt as to whether the prosecution proved even one of the above elements, then they would find the defendant “not guilty” of reckless driving. Otherwise, a jury that is convinced of each element beyond a reasonable doubt will find that defendant “guilty” of the offense.
You should note that it does not matter whether anyone was actually hurt or whether any property was actually damaged. If someone is injured, then that factor could be used to increase the potential sentences for reckless driving (see below). However, the prosecution does not have to prove that any injury or damage occurred.
Note also that it does not matter whether the driver actually intended to hurt or threaten anyone with their driving. A person acts with “willful or wanton” disregard for safety when they are aware of an unreasonable risk to the safety of other people or property and they intentionally disregard that risk. To prove this, prosecutors will likely draw from circumstantial evidence about the defendant’s driving habits and behavior to show that they intentionally disregarded such a risk.
Also be aware that VC 23103 covers both city streets and freeways in the definition of “highway.” And furthermore, reckless driving in an “off-street parking lot” is still a crime under this section, too.
Defenses to a charge of reckless driving
There are, however, some defenses to a charge of reckless driving under VC 23103.
- The defendant was not the driver
This sounds obvious but it is an issue that a good defense should always explore. In some cases of reckless driving the driver might not be reliably identified. For example, consider a case where a car gets into an accident, and the driver flees on foot. Then the defendant is apprehended nearby after some witnesses infer that they might have been the driver. Even when the car is registered to the defendant, the identification might not always be so cut and dry. In any event, remember that the prosecution has to prove every element of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt. One of those elements is that the defendant was driving the car. If the jury has any reasonable doubt as to whether the defendant was the driver, then they will find the defendant “not guilty” of reckless driving.
- No reckless driving
Continuing with the theme of holding the prosecution to their burden of proof, a trial on reckless driving charges should result in a “not guilty” verdict if the jury has any reasonable doubt that the defendant was driving with a willful and wanton disregard for the safety of others. This means that the prosecutor must show that the defendant was doing more than just driving too fast, or was negligent or careless. Even “gross negligence” is not enough to qualify as reckless driving. Both the prosecution and defense will be expected to draw on circumstantial evidence about the defendant’s driving behavior and conditions to show whether they acted with this level of disregard for others.
If the defendant drove in a “reckless” way, but did so in an emergency situation, then they might have a “necessity” defense to the charge of reckless driving. The necessity defense applies when the defendant:
- Drove recklessly in an emergency to prevent harm to himself or someone else
- Defendant had no legal alternative
- The reckless driving was not a greater evil than the evil the defendant sought to avoid
- The defendant believed that the reckless driving was necessary to avoid the greater evil
- A reasonable person would believe that the reckless driving was necessary under the circumstances AND
- The defendant did not substantially contribute to the injury
This is a difficult defense to prove because it requires the defendant to show that the emergency they are dealing with is more dangerous than the reckless driving they committed, and that the defendant had no other option but to drive recklessly. Still, it may apply in some cases, and so a good defense of a reckless driving charge should probably investigate it as a possibility.
Possible sentences or jail time for reckless driving under VC 23103
Reckless driving is a “wobbler” which means that it can be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony under California law, depending on whether certain circumstances are present.
Reckless driving under VC 23103 is a misdemeanor under California law, and is punishable by 5-90 days in jail, a $145-$1000 fine, or both a fine and imprisonment. However, if other circumstances are present, then reckless driving can become a more serious charge.
- Reckless driving with injury
If the defendant, while driving recklessly, “proximately causes” injury to someone other than themselves, reckless driving can be charged as a misdemeanor, punishable by 30 days-6 months in jail, a fine of $220 to $1000, or both.
- Reckless driving with great bodily injury
When the driver proximately causes “great bodily injury” to someone else, and the driver has a previous conviction for reckless driving, DUI, or “speed racing”, then reckless driving can be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony. As a misdemeanor, this type of reckless driving can be punished by a period of 30 days-6 months incarceration and/or a fine of $220-$1000. As a felony, however, this type of reckless driving charge can be punished by incarceration for 16 months, 2 years, or 3 years.
- Reckless driving with certain types of injuries
There is also a separate type of reckless driving charge for when the driver causes a specific type of bodily injury to someone else. When someone other than the driver suffers:
- A loss of consciousness
- A concussion
- A bone fracture
- A protracted loss of impairment of function of a bodily member or organ
- A wound requiring extensive suturing
- A serious disfigurement
- Brain injury
In those cases, reckless driving is a “wobbler.” As a misdemeanor, this type of reckless driving charge can be punished by 30 days-6 months of jail and/or a fine of $220-$1000. As a felony, this type of reckless driving charge can be punished by incarceration for 16 months, 2 years, or 3 years.
DMV consequences to a reckless driving conviction
A conviction for reckless driving will result in 2 “points” on your driver’s license and increased insurance premiums. Additional “points” on your license could lead to a suspension of your license by the DMV.