Virginia Traffic Court: Should I plead No Contest or Guilty?
As Virginia traffic lawyers, we are often asked by clients and prospective clients whether it is best to plead guilty or no contest to a traffic offense such as reckless driving, driving under the influence (DUI/DWI) or speeding.
Not surprisingly, the answer is, “it depends.” First of all, it is always very important to consult with an experienced traffic attorney who has a great deal of experience handling traffic matters in the jurisdiction in which your case is pending before you decide how you should plead to the charge. This is important because some judges have policies that concern what, if any, mercy they will grant an otherwise guilty traffic defendant based on how they plead. Some judges, for example, will not dismiss or reduce a reckless driving charge to a lesser offense against a defendant who pleads not guilty and then asks the court for leniency after the judge finds that the facts established at trial support a conviction.
It doesn’t take too much of an imagination to see yourself involved in a relatively minor accident at a traffic light on your way home from work. It happens to the best of us. But then to add insult to injury that police officer who has been very nice throughout the “crash investigation” informs you that the driver of the other vehicle needs to be taken to the hospital for a possible neck injury, and that he has to charge you with Reckless Driving. “Neck injury?” “Reckless Driving?” You are beside yourself! How is this possible? As the nice officer hands you the summons for Reckless Driving with a court date for you to appear and plead your case to the judge he waves politely and tells you to have a nice day.
You make your appearance in court on the designated court date. Your case gets called and the judge asks you how you plead. “How do I plead?” you think to yourself. It’s a no-brainer. “I plead not guilty, your honor,” you stammer. The judge then listens to the evidence. He hears from the driver of the other vehicle. The other driver indicates to the court that while he is waiting patiently at the red light on a nice slow and easy day, he saw you careening toward his vehicle from his rearview mirror and it appeared that you were distracted by your radio. The next thing he remembers, he informs the court, is that his vehicle was rammed from behind and he had to be transported to the hospital because his neck was in pain. Then the court hears from the officer. The officer testifies that he did not see any tire marks to indicate braking, which led him to believe that you were distracted and did not brake before impacting the other vehicle. “This is unbelievable,” you think to yourself. “This was a minor accident.” And finally it’s your turn to testify. You explain to the court that you were not distracted when you hit the other vehicle. You go on to testify that the light had just turned green and you thought that the vehicle in front of you was beginning to accelerate and so you didn’t brake. By the time you realized they had not gone forward upon the light turning green it was too late and you made minor impact with the other vehicle.
Now it’s the court’s turn. It’s judgment time. The judge explains that he listened to you and all other witnesses intently. And while he understands your position, he finds from the evidence that your conduct meets that prohibited under the Virginia Reckless Driving statute. He’s sorry, he tells you, but he has no choice but to find you guilty.
Notwithstanding your utter disagreement with the judge’s ruling, you explain to his or her honor that you have a perfect driving record and this is the first accident you’ve ever been involved in and you’d like the court to consider reducing this to something less serious than reckless driving. The Court listens patiently as you make your best pitch, but then informs you that it is the court’s policy to not dismiss or reduce Reckless Driving charges (or Following Too Close charges) where an accident is involved and the defendant pleads not guilty. The court enters judgment and you leave the courthouse having been convicted of Reckless Driving.
You’re left stunned. After all, you’re a model citizen who works hard, raises a family and has never been in trouble before. How could you get convicted of Reckless Driving, a class 1 misdemeanor offense, for this fender bender? Well, in part it’s because you didn’t consult with an attorney who has a very clear understanding of Virginia traffic law, the court’s policies and the facts at hand.
Indeed, pleading not guilty or no contest before such a judge could prove to be a very costly mistake, especially to a person concerned about the affect the reckless driving conviction could have on their driving record, auto insurance rates, employment, or driving privileges. To be very clear, however, it can be equally disastrous to simply attend court on such a charge and plead guilty. Under Virginia law, if the driver of that other vehicle decides to sue you for money as a result of the accident and you entered a guilty or no contest plea to the Reckless Driving charge, the other driver’s civil attorney may try to use that plea against you as an admission of guilt.
As you can no doubt see, it this is not a decision to be made lightly. And this same decision process is just as important, if not more important, when dealing with other traffic offenses such as DUI/DWI or Hit and Run. It is very important to consult with an attorney that focuses his or her practice on traffic and DUI/DWI matters.
If you have any questions, please contact our firm at (804) 355-8037.