If a driver in Loudoun is involved in a traffic accident that wasn’t witnessed by a law enforcement officer, he or she can be cited for reckless driving. In some situations, the ticket is warranted. But in others, that’s far from the case.
For years, the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office, along with town police departments, have been faced with the challenge of determining whether a minor traffic accident warrants a reckless driving charge. In many cases without witness accounts or other clear evidence, law enforcement officers are left with the choice of citing drivers for reckless driving or nothing at all. They can’t cite drivers with the lesser offense of improper driving because Virginia law only allows judges to do so.
“Unless you witness the actual violation, it’s pretty hard to write for something less than reckless at a traffic accident,” said Loudoun County Sheriff Mike Chapman. “We’re constrained now to write reckless driving for minor traffic violations.”
In 2017, county sheriff’s deputies wrote 1,263 reckless driving tickets. Of those, 587 were written under the general rule—meaning 587 drivers last year violated nothing specific under the reckless driving law, but their conduct allegedly endangered the “life, limb or property of any person”—the wording of the statute.
Aside from being charged with the Class 1 misdemeanor, offenders face mandatory court appearances and, if convicted, up to $2,500 in fines, up to one year in jail, up to six points on their driver’s license and a criminal record. To have the best chances of getting the reckless charge reduced, some offenders feel they need an attorney, something they end up paying anywhere from $500 to thousands of dollars for in legal fees.
Chapman said that in most situations, however, a judge will reduce the charge to improper driving whether the offender has an attorney or not.
Of the 795 reckless driving cases that entered Loudoun’s General District Court last year, 614 were reduced to a lesser charge—89 percent to improper driving. Of the 181 that weren’t reduced, another 66 were either dismissed, resulted in not guilty verdicts or were not prosecuted. In other words, only 14 percent of reckless driving citations ended in convictions on that charge.
“That clogs up the dockets,” Chapman said. “It actually takes up unnecessary court time.”
Acting Purcellville Police Chief Joe Schroeck said he agrees with Chapman’s frustration. He said that when he cites drivers involved in wrecks for reckless driving, he often asks the judge to reduce the charge to improper driving.
To change the way Virginia law enforcement officers handle writing reckless driving tickets, Chapman has spent three years pressing county and state officials to give his deputies the ability to write tickets for lesser charges in these kinds of situations.
He noted that 11 Virginia jurisdictions have an ordinance called Failure to Pay Full Time and Attention, which gives law enforcement officers the ability to cite drivers for a lesser charge, one similar to improper driving.
In 2015, Chapman solicited support from the Board of Supervisors to adopt a similar ordinance in Loudoun. Vice ChairmanRalph Buona (R-Ashburn) said that he was, and still is, in favor of adopting the ordinance.
“I am very supportive of it,” he said. “If somebody is in a minor incident, they shouldn’t have to be charged for reckless.”
Although Buona said the majority of the board supported the idea, Commonwealth’s Attorney Jim Plowman strongly opposed it.
According to Plowman, adopting the citation would be a violation of the Dillon Rule, which requires a locality to obtain approval from the Virginia General Assembly when adopting new ordinances.
He also cited a 1979 Attorney General opinion making it clear that a county ordinance authorizing an arresting officer to cite a driver with a charge equivalent to improper driving would “intrude upon the discretion of the court and be inconsistent with state law.”
“I’m not interested in enacting ordinances that are contrary to the law,” Plowman said. “I’m not interested in creating loopholes in the law for people to escape accountability.”
Plowman also said that enacting such an ordinance would create inconsistencies across the state, since the charge would only apply to a particular jurisdiction and would not be recognized by the DMV or show up on an offender’s driving record.
In a March 2015 memorandum he sent to the Board of Supervisors, Plowman suggested that if sheriff’s deputies believe there is no probable cause at an accident scene to issue a summons for reckless driving or another charge, they should cite them for nothing at all. “There is no mandatory compulsion to charge in every accident case,” he wrote.
After the local ordinance idea proved unsuccessful, Chapman worked with state legislators to amend the language of the improper driving statute and allow Virginia’s law enforcement officers to cite drivers with it.
“I think it’s a good solution that falls within the two—within nothing and within reckless,” he said. “It’s nice to have something extra in your toolbox rather than writing reckless.”
Of course, he knows this will be difficult to tackle. In the 2017 Virginia General Assembly session, Sen. Jill Vogel (R-27) and Sen. Dick Black (R-13) introduced a distracted driving bill to achieve this goal. The bill died in committee on a 9-6 vote when nine senators voted to kill it.
Chapman pointed out that eight of the opposition votes were cast by senators who also were attorneys. He said many attorneys don’t support the change because of the fees they can earn from defending drivers charged with reckless driving. “It’s basically for selfish reasons,” he said.
Loudoun defense attorney Sarah Bruns said that she isn’t opposed to such a bill. In fact, when someone contacts her after getting charged with reckless driving, she tells them that they might not need an attorney to get the charge reduced. Of course, she said that most of them still want her help. “They panic when they learn that it’s a Class 1 misdemeanor,” she said.
Schroeck, Middleburg Police Chief A.J. Panebianco and Leesburg Police Chief Gregory Brown said they support Chapman’s efforts to have a bill written that would give their officers the ability to cite drivers for improper driving.
Plowman said that Chapman’s attempt to change the law involves much more than a simple rewording. “Him going down this road is going to be contrary to every statutory scheme that is already in place,” he said.
While no similar bills were passed in this year’s General Assembly session, Chapman is talking with local delegates and senators to try and have one written for next year. “We’re just going to keep running at it,” he said.
If the rewording ever goes through, improper driving offenders would not be faced with a criminal charge, would not have to appear in court and would be able to simply pay a fine and be on their way. “That’s the whole purpose of the proposed legislation,” Chapman said.