A "reckless" win
A young man was charged with reckless driving in a recent case, but I successfully defended him in Clark County District Court last month by arguing to the jury that the crime of reckless driving has specific elements the state could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt.
A Clark County sheriff's deputy pulled my client over after witnessing him driving in the center turn lane on State Route 503 and passing some vehicles travelling in the same direction before merging over. The deputy sheriff was correct in that center turn lanes are not to be used as passing lanes. My client indicated that he was not trying to pass any cars, he was trying to speed up to the general pace of the traffic prior to merging. What the officer did not witness was how my client came to be in the center turn lane.
SR-503 is a busy arterial connecting east Orchards with Brush Prairie and Battle Ground. The incident occurred during rush hour on a weekday evening. My client entered SR-503 by making a left turn from a stop-sign controlled T-shaped intersection. Traffic on SR-503 does not stop at this intersection. My client had to turn left when there was an opening against two lanes of 50 mph traffic. Waiting for both sides to be clear at the same time, during rush hour, is an exercise in futility. Once he made it into the center lane, which is used to make left turns off of SR-503, he began travelling up to speed in order to merge.
The deputy sheriff felt that because he saw brake lights from cars when my client merged, and because he had passed some cars before merging, he was engaged in reckless driving. Reckless driving is a gross misdemeanor that carries up to one year in jail and a $5000 license suspension. While it would be exceedingly rare for a person to do a year in jail on this charge, it does carry with it some long-term collateral consequences. A conviction leads to a 30-day driver’s license suspension and a requirement that a person carry high-risk insurance for two years.
Reckless driving is a charge where the jury has to find that the defendant thought a certain way. The jury has to find that the defendant intended to act in a dangerous manner, or knew the danger of what he was doing and chose to do it anyway. It is an exceedingly high burden of proof that the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt. In this case, the jury was not able to find that my client’s driving was either reckless in and of itself, or that he was consciously making a choice to drive unsafely. No other drivers called in or stopped to offer a statement, and the roadway is flat so there was no hill preventing my client from seeing another car travelling toward him and vice-versa. A person on the jury lives in the area and presumably was familiar with the traffic on that road. Ultimately the jurors felt that the state could not prove its case.
Under the law, my client may have been obligated to sit in the center lane until all other traffic passed before merging, but his lack of doing so did not mean that his driving was reckless under the law.