Reckless Driving Overview
When discussing unsafe driving in the context of traffic accidents, the lines between criminal and civil liability can often get blurred. The purpose of this article is assist readers in understanding both the criminal and civil legal issues that can arise from a Colorado traffic accident. To that end, we’ll first look at criminal elements by examining the elements required to sustain the common charges alleged, subsequent to a traffic accident, of careless or reckless driving. This article then will examine the civil liability that most routinely results from negligent driving and how the civil and criminal liability differ from each other.
General Elements of Careless and Reckless Driving Charges
In Colorado, there are two primary types of driving criminal offenses involving drivers operating their vehicles in an unsafe manner; “careless driving” and, the more serious offense of “reckless driving.” While the majority of Colorado traffic infractions and offenses can only be charged when they take place on a public thoroughfare, people can be charged with either careless or reckless driving for driving unsafely on either public or private property.
Both offenses require the prosecution to prove two basic elements in order for a driver to be convicted. The first is that the driver must be operating a vehicle at the time of the offense in a careless or reckless manner. The term “vehicle” covers cars, motorcycles and trucks, but also includes electric bicycles (commonly called mopeds), scooters, and even ordinary bicycles and similar non-motorized vehicles. Hence, if it’s a vehicle of any kind, chances are there is the potential for criminal liability if it’s driven or ridden unsafely.
The second major part of a careless or reckless driving offense requires a culpable mental state of the driver and is different for the two offenses. This second basic element often poses a substantial challenge to prosecutors who must prove each basic element of the crime to a judge or jury beyond a reasonable doubt. The different mental states for careless driving and reckless driving will be discussed at length below.
Threshold Mental State to Sustain a Charge of Careless Driving (C.R.E. § 42-4-140)
In order for drivers to be successfully prosecuted for careless driving, the prosecution must prove that they were driving their vehicles in a careless and imprudent manner without due regard for the width, grade, curves, corners, traffic, and use of the streets and highways and all other attendant circumstances. Colorado courts have found that a person who knowingly chooses to drive without such due regard, which creates a possibility that property may be damaged or that others will be injured, has the required state of mind to be found guilty of careless driving. Essentially, this means that if a driver consciously operates their vehicle in a way they know to be dangerous, they may be exposing themselves to criminal liability. Some potential examples of careless driving are:
- Exceeding the speed limit in rainy, foggy or icy conditions.
- Weaving in and out of traffic in a dangerous manner on a crowded highway.
- Exceeding the speed limit by an excessive amount.
If a driver operates his or her vehicle carelessly, and that conduct causes serious injury or death, by statute the driver will be subject to stricter criminal penalties.
Threshold Mental State to Sustain a Charge of Reckless Driving (C.R.E. § 42-4-1401)
As mentioned above, reckless driving is a more serious offense that requires a more culpable mental state than that required for the prosecution to prove careless driving. As a result, for the state to successfully prosecute a case against a defendant who has been charged with reckless driving, the prosecution must prove that he or she was driving or riding a vehicle in a manner that “…indicate(s) either a wanton or willful disregard for the safety of persons or property…” Thus, when a driver “consciously chooses a dangerous course of action which to a reasonable mind may create a strong probability that injury to others will result” he has the necessary mental state to sustain a charge of reckless driving. Some potential examples of reckless driving are:
- Playing a game of “chicken” by driving your vehicle directly at another vehicle intentionally.
- Driving at twice the speed limit in a highly populated residential area when children are present.
- Intentionally cutting off another vehicle while driving at high speeds.
Establishing Civil Liability Arising from Negligent Driving and How Criminal Convictions Affect Civil Liability
Regardless of the criminal implications that may potentially also arise from negligent driving, the four pillars of a civil case arising from negligent driving remain duty, breach, causation, and damages. As a result, plaintiffs’ attorneys must prove that it is more likely than not that the defendant in a civil case had a duty to drive without being negligent, which he or she breached and which proximately and factually caused damage to their client(s). Further, while it is safe to say that a conviction of criminal careless or reckless driving, which careless or reckless driving caused damage to a plaintiff, may in fact lead to sufficient evidence of civil negligence, not all acts that result in a finding of civil negligence in a civil lawsuit are enough to sustain a charge of careless or reckless driving at a criminal trial.
Also, while the criminal side of negligent driving requires the prosecution to establish culpable mental state, there is essentially no such requirement to prove negligence in civil cases. Put simply, a driver can breach their duty to drive safely in a way that exposes them to civil liability, but not criminal responsibility.
Further, the standard in a civil case to establish liability against a defendant is more likely than not that the defendant was the cause of the damages. In a Colorado criminal case, involving a charge of careless driving or reckless driving, the standard of proof the prosecution must meet to convict a driver is the far stricter standard of guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Some examples of negligent driving behavior, which are unlikely to rise to the level of careless or reckless driving, are a driver causing a plaintiff damages due to:
- Driving carefully, but missing a stop sign and thereby causing an accident.
- Accidentally backing up into another vehicle in a parking lot.
- Checking side view mirrors to change lanes and accidentally rear-ending the vehicle in front of you when it slows or stops.
In any of the three cases above, if a plaintiff’s attorney can prove that in the particular situation a reasonable person would have acted in a different, more careful manner, even momentarily, it is likely they will be able to obtain damages from the driver. However, a prosecutor would find it more difficult to sustain a criminal charge of careless or reckless against the individual driver absent further, aggravating circumstances.
That being said, if a driver is convicted of careless or reckless driving and the particular incident resulting in the charges also resulted in injury to a plaintiff, or damages to a plaintiff’s personal property, it is probable that plaintiff may use the criminal conviction to establish negligence per se and recover damages from the negligent driver. In order to prove negligence per se a plaintiff must demonstrate to the court that the defendant broke a law that provides for a criminal penalty in addition to showing that by breaking the law the respondent caused the kind of damages the law was intended to prevent. Further, the plaintiff must show that he or she is a member of the class of persons the law was written to protect. Finally, if a person is convicted of careless or reckless driving in a criminal court, the judge may order the defendant to pay the parties damaged by his misconduct directly through a process of law known as criminal restitution.
Dealing With Civil Cases and/or Criminal Charges Resulting from Negligent Driving
When a driver has been charged with careless or reckless driving, it’s important that they speak with an attorney who fully understands the letter of the law as well as the often complicated civil, criminal and restitution court proceedings that may result from these charges. The law firm of Ross Koplin has extensive experience with traffic law and has successfully defended numerous clients facing charges of careless and/or reckless driving. If you know a driver who has been charged with either or both traffic violations, we encourage you to contact us as soon as possible so that we can help you formulate an impregnable defense and move your case forward.
Legal Disclaimer – The information contained at this web site is not intended to be legal advice and all information regarding Colorado criminal law is general content only and should not be relied upon for any specific Colorado criminal law situation. Information on this web site is not intended to be comprehensive and does not cover all the issues, nuances or ramifications related to the topic discussed. This web site may not be updated routinely to reflect the very most current Colorado law.
Individuals should consult an experienced Denver criminal attorney, Denver DUI laywer, or Denver traffic lawyer for advice regarding an individual situation.