Updated September 8
California Vehicle Code 23103 VC defines the offense of reckless driving as driving with a willful or wanton disregard for the safety of other people or property. This offense is a misdemeanor that carries up to 90 days in jail, a fine of at least $145.00, and 2 points on the person’s driver’s license.
23103 VC states that “a person who drives a vehicle upon a highway in willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property is guilty … [and] shall be punished by imprisonment in a county jail for not less than five days nor more than 90 days or by a fine of not less than one hundred forty-five dollars ($145)”
- driving a car at high speeds through a school zone
- doing fast doughnuts in an icy parking lot
- drag or street racing
Common 23103 VC defenses include showing that
- the defendant was not the actual driver,
- the driving was not reckless, and / or
- the driver was acting out of necessity.
- imprisonment for 5 to 90 days in county jail, and/or
- a fine between $145 and $1,000.
These penalties include more serious consequences if the offense causes injury to another person.
Our California criminal defense attorneys will highlight the following in this article:
- 1. How does California law define reckless driving?
- 2. Are there legal defenses?
- 3. What are the 23103 VC penalties?
- 4. Are there immigration consequences?
- 5. Can a person get a conviction expunged?
- 6. Does a conviction affect gun rights?
- 7. Are there related offenses?
1. How does California law define reckless driving?
A prosecutor must prove the following to convict a defendant under California reckless driving laws:
- the defendant drove a vehicle on a highway or in an off-street parking facility, and
- the defendant drove with wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property.1
Questions often arise under this code section on the meaning of:
- highway and off-street parking facility, and
- wanton disregard for safety
1.1. Highway and off-street parking facility
For purposes of 23103 VC, a “highway” is any area (such as a street) that is:
- publicly maintained, and
- open to the public for purposes of vehicular travel.2
An “off-street parking facility” is a parking area open for use by the public for parking vehicles. It includes:
- publicly owned facilities, and
- privately owned facilities open to retail customers, where no fee is charged for parking.3
Privately owned parking facilities that are not open to the public are not covered by this statute. This would include employee parking lots.
1.2. Wanton disregard for safety
Under California law, a person acts with a wanton disregard for safety when:
- he is aware that his actions present a substantial and unjustiﬁable risk of harm, and
- he intentionally ignores that risk.4
Note that the driver does not have to intend to cause damage to be guilty of violating 23103 VC.5
Also, speeding does not, by itself, prove that the defendant was reckless. Speed is just one factor the jury can consider in deciding whether the defendant drove recklessly.6
Example: Maria is speeding on a Los Angeles expressway at night when no other cars are around. Here, while she is guilty of speeding, Maria is not guilty of violating 23103 VC. There is no risk of harm to anyone else.
However, she would be guilty if she was speeding during rush hour traffic and weaving in between cars. The facts show that there is a definite risk of harm and Maria ignored it.
2. Are there legal defenses?
A defendant can challenge a California reckless driving charge with a legal defense.
Three common defenses to this criminal charge are:
- defendant was not the driver,
- the driving was not acting recklessly, and/or
2.1. The defendant was not the driver
The defendant must have driven a vehicle to be guilty of 23103 VC. This means it is a defense for an accused to show that he was not the driver of the motor vehicle. For example, perhaps he was only a passenger.
2.2. The driving was not acting recklessly
Recall that violating 23103 VC means operating a car with a wanton disregard for safety. A prosecutor has to prove this beyond a reasonable doubt. It is a defense, therefore, to show that an accused was not intentionally ignoring a risk of harm when driving.
Under a necessity defense, a defendant essentially tries to avoid guilt by showing that he had a sufficiently good reason to commit the crime. People sometimes refer to this defense as “guilty with an explanation.” In the context of 23103 VC, an accused can attempt to show that he committed the crime since he had no other choice (e.g., because of an emergency).
Depending on the case, experienced criminal defense attorneys rely on such evidence as eyewitnesses, surveillance video, and accident reconstruction expert testimony.
3. What are the 23103 VC penalties?
A violation of 23103 VC is a misdemeanor. The crime is punishable by:
- imprisonment for 5 to 90 days in county jail, and/or
- a fine between $145 and $1,000.7
These penalties grow more severe if the offense causes either:
- minor injury, or
- serious injury to another person.
Also note that this section is often used as:
- a “dry reckless” plea bargain to
- avoid conviction under California DUI laws.
A conviction also places 2 points on the offender’s driver’s license by the DMV. Accumulating too many driving record points in a given time period can cause the person to face a license suspension of driving privileges for being a negligent operator. Car insurance rates will probably increase as well.
3.1. With minor injury
If violating 23103 VC causes a minor bodily injury to a third party, the crime is still a misdemeanor. But the penalties increase to:
- 30 days to one year in jail, and/or
- a fine between $220 and $1,000.8
3.2. With serious injury
Violating 23103 VC is a wobbler offense if someone other than the driver is seriously injured. A “wobbler” is charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony, in the prosecutor’s discretion.
When charged as a felony, reckless driving is punishable by:
- up to three years in state prison, and/or
- a fine of up to $10,000.9
The car itself may be subject to impoundment.
3.3. “Dry reckless” as a DUI plea bargain
Vehicle Code 23103 is often used as a plea bargain to avoid conviction under California DUI laws. This is plea bargain is often referred to as a “dry reckless” plea deal.
The advantages of the deal include that the defendant escapes harsh DUI penalties. In particular, the defendant:
- does not face mandatory sentencing enhancements if charged with a subsequent DUI,
- receives a shorter jail sentence and probation period,
- incurs a smaller fine, and
- is not subject to a mandatory court-ordered license suspension.
4. Are there immigration consequences?
A 23103 VC conviction will generally not have negative immigration consequences.
A non-citizen can be either:
if guilty of certain California crimes.
But a 23103 VC conviction will not produce this result.
5. Can a person get a conviction expunged?
A person guilty under this statute can get a criminal record expungement if he completes:
- probation, or
- a jail term (whichever is relevant).
A judge may even award an expungement if a party violates a probation term.
An expungement is favorable because it releases a person from most penalties of a conviction.10
6. Does a conviction affect gun rights?
A misdemeanor conviction under this statute will not have negative effects on the defendant’s gun rights. But a felony conviction will.
California law says that convicted felons cannot:
- own a gun, or
- possess a gun.
Recall that reckless driving can be charged as a felony if it causes serious injury to another party. A defendant therefore will lose his gun rights if convicted of this offense and causing a serious injury.
7. Are there related offenses?
There are three related crimes in the state of California. These are:
- reckless driving resulting in specific serious injuries – 23105 VC,
- wet reckless, and
- speed contests – VC 23109.
7.1. Reckless driving resulting in specific serious injuries – 23105 VC
Per Vehicle Code 23105 VC, reckless driving is a “wobbler” offense if it causes certain serious injuries to a third party. Some of these include:
- loss of consciousness,
- concussion, and
- a serious disfigurement.11
A party can still be charged with a wobbler under Vehicle Code 23104 VC if:
- he commits reckless driving, and
- it causes serious injury (and the injury is not listed within 23105 VC).
7.2. Wet reckless
“Wet reckless” is the informal name given to a common DUI charge reduction. It is not a charge for which someone can be arrested.
“Wet reckless” is a nickname for a reckless driving conviction that:
- results from a DUI plea bargain, and
- includes a notation indicating there was alcohol and/or drug use involved.
7.3. Speed contests – 23109 VC
California Vehicle Code 23109a VC makes it a crime to willfully participate in a speed contest.
A “speed contest” is defined as a race of a person’s vehicle against:
- another car, or
- against a clock.
Depending on the circumstances, a defendant might be charged with both:
- speed contests, and
- reckless driving.
For information on reckless driving traffic violation charges in Nevada and Colorado, please see our articles on:
- CALCRIM No. 2200. Judicial Council of California Criminal Jury Instructions (2017 edition).
- See same.
- See same.
- See same. See also People v. Schumacher (1961) 194 Cal.App.2d 335; and, People v. Young (1942) 20 Cal.2d 832.
- See same.
- CALCRIM No. 2200. See also People v.Nowell (1941) 45 Cal.App.2d Supp. 811.
- California Vehicle Code section 23103c VC.
- California Vehicle Code 23104a VC.
- California Vehicle Code 23104b VC.
- California Penal Code 1203.4 PC.
- California Vehicle Code 23105b VC.