Written by attorney Patrick Mahaney

Reckless Driving: Validity and proof of reckless driving under Alabama’s traffic code

One of the most perplexing situations involving state troopers and other law enforcement officers who enforce the state traffic code is determining when, and under what circumstances, to charge a motorist with reckless driving. Some officers seldom make a reckless driving charge, while others use the reckless driving statute frequently as a sort of "catch-all" for combined violations of the rules of the road. However, the reckless driving statute has its own terms and legal limitations.

The state's reckless driving statute, Code of Alabama, 1975, Section 32-5A-190(a), states the following: "Any person who drives any vehicle carelessly and heedlessly in willful or wanton disregard for the rights or safety of persons or property, or without due caution and circumspection and at a speed or in a manner so as to endanger or be likely to endanger any person or property, shall be guilty of reckless driving."

Reckless driving is classified as a serious traffic offense under the Alabama traffic code and requires a mandatory court appearance for the defendant. The term "reckless driving" under the Alabama Code is not precisely defined. The terms "reckless driving" or "recklessness" are often in the eye of the arresting officer and is highly dependent upon the facts, circumstances and events. No one instance of "reckless driving" is precisely like the next case. Basically, the Alabama reckless driving statute is a two pronged approach to criminalize any highly dangerous, or "reckless," operation of a motor vehicle.

Part one of the statute deals with the "willful and wanton disregard for the rights and safety" of other persons or property. This presumably includes, among other actions, a conscious disregard of the safety of other persons and grossly erratic vehicle operation, but not necessarily high speed operation or even a series of traffic violations indicating heedless operation, but operating a vehicle while demonstrating a complete and total disregard for the safety or property of others by operating in a reckless manner. In other words, "reckless driving" is the gross deviation from ordinary prudence required of operating a vehicle and creates a substantial risk of injury; it is a callous disregard for the danger created by the driver's conduct.

Part two of the statute is better understood and more inclusive of the term "reckless" operation. Part two uses the terms "without due caution ...and at a speed or in a manner so as to endanger or be likely to endanger..." Part two of the statute requires both a lack of caution on part of a driver (but not the intentional disregard of the rights of others), plus either speed or the manner of operation.

If the prosecution proceeds under the state's reckless driving statute, there are the elements of mental status (conscious disregard/without due caution) plus the vehicle operation itself. While it is commonly, but mistakenly, believed that high speed operation alone constitutes "reckless driving," the editor has found no appellate decision in Alabama law that has held speeding, in and of itself, to constitute the violation of "reckless driving."

A number of Alabama cases have previously construed "reckless driving" under the Code of Alabama. These fact situations include: intentionally ramming another vehicle during a high speed chase; the combined operation of driving on the wrong side of the road, swerving, and failing to stop at a stop sign; passing in a dangerous manner while operating a vehicle under the influence; failure to stop at a stop sign and weaving within a lane; and driving erratically while speeding.

In the case of Bradford v. State, 948 So.2d 574 (Ala. Crim. App. 2006), the Court of Criminal Appeals upheld a conviction of reckless driving, but remanded the case to the trial court for re-sentencing, where the defendant was involved in a high speed chase and rammed a vehicle which, in turn, rammed a police car. In the case of Casey v. State, 740 So.2d 1136 (Ala. Crim. App. 1998), the Court of Criminal Appeals upheld a conviction of reckless driving where the defendant drove on the wrong side of the road, swerved several times, and ran a stop sign.

In the case of Krumm v. City of Robertsdale, 648 So.2d 651 (Ala. Crim. App. 1994), the Court of Criminal Appeals upheld a conviction of reckless driving and a conviction of driving under the influence where the defendant passed another vehicle in an area on highway where double-yellow lines separated the northbound and southbound lanes of traffic.

Other cases from the Court of Criminal Appeals hold similarly: In the case of Hargrove v. City of Rainbow City, 619 So.2d 944 (Ala. Crim. App. 1993), the Court of Criminal Appeals found that the trial court had enough evidence to convict the defendant of reckless driving where the officer observed the defendant fail to stop at stop sign, weave within in his traffic lane, and make a right turn without stopping at a red light. In the case of Sanders v. City of Birmingham, 542 So.2d 325 (Ala. Crim. App. 1988), the Court of Criminal Appeals upheld a reckless driving conviction where the defendant drove his vehicle "erratically" while speeding and weaving in and out of traffic. Taken as a whole, the cited cases indicate that substantially dangerous and highly irresponsible driving conduct is necessary to sustain a conviction of reckless driving.

By contrast, the recent case of Zann v. State, 17 So. 3d 1222 (Ala. Crim. App. 2009), the Court of Criminal Appeals reversed and rendered a conviction of reckless driving and held that the defendant was not reckless driving when he allowed the tires on his passenger side to cross over the shoulder for a period of one second while the defendant was driving five or six miles per hour over the speed limit. Judge Welch, writing for a unanimous court, held Zann's operation of his vehicle did not rise to the level of reckless driving as the defendant's conduct was not a "willful or wanton disregard for the rights or safety of others. Further, there is no evidence indicating that Zann was driving without due caution and circumspection and a speed or in a manner likely to endanger anyone." Zann at 1224.

In summary, reckless driving is a special type of traffic offense that is surely more serious than any other offense contained in the rules of the road, except for the offense of DUI. If convicted, on first offense, the offender maybe punished by imprisonment for a period not less than five days nor more than 90 days, or by a fine of not less than $25 and not more than $500, or both. If this is the second offense, the penalty is increased to a period of incarceration of not less than 10 days nor more than six months, or by fine of not less than $50 nor more than $500, or both fine and imprisonment. Reckless driving is specifically not a lesser included offense of DUI, and by statute, a court cannot "reduce" DUI to reckless driving. The two offenses are separate and distinct.

Also, the driver license consequences following a reckless driving conviction are severe. If convicted, the Department of Public Safety will summarily impose six points to the driver's record, which is the single largest number of points assigned to any specific traffic violation. Twelve points will result in notice of suspension of driver license issued to the motorist. Also, one unusual aspect of the reckless driving statute and driver license law is the fact that if the motorist is convicted of three reckless driving charges within a period of 12 months, the Director of Public Safety shall forthwith revoke the driver license or driver privilege of the convicted offender. In other words, there is a mandatory duty of the Director to revoke the driver license or privilege or any person convicted of reckless driving if the Director receives three conviction notices of that offense within a single 12 month period.

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