The language of the code section reads as follows:
A person who drives a motor vehicle, bicycle, electrical assisted bicycle, or low-power scooter in such a manner as to indicate either a wanton or a willful disregard for the safety of persons or property is guilty of reckless driving.
Reckless driving is a more serious traffic offense than careless driving (CRS 42-4-1402), which is driving with negligence as opposed to recklessness.
Examples of reckless driving
- Speeding excessively, such as going 25 mph over the posted limit in a residential area, or failing to slow down on a winding road, or tailgating at a high speed
- Road rage, such as trying to cut off another driver after being cut off yourself
- Performing risky driving maneuvers such as quickly weaving in and out of lanes for no legitimate purpose and with no legal justification
The best defenses
Common defenses to a charge of reckless driving include:
- The car was stationary when police accused you of behaving recklessly,
- You were not the driver,
- Your driving was careless, not reckless, or
- There was an emergency.
The penalties for a first conviction for reckless driving include:
- Between 10 and 90 days in jail, and
- Up to $300 in fines.
Subsequent convictions for reckless driving carry more severe penalties:
- 10 days to 6 months in jail, and
- Up to $1,000 in fines.
Note that reckless driving that causes an injury is an entirely separate crime called vehicular assault (CRS 18-3-205). If death results from reckless driving, then the D.A. would bring charges for vehicular homicide (CRS 18-3-106).
In this article, our Denver Colorado criminal defense attorneys will explain:
- 1. What is reckless driving under CRS 42-4-1401?
- 2. What legal defenses can be asserted?
- 3. What are the penalties?
- 4. Related offenses to reckless driving
1. What is reckless driving under CRS 42-4-1401?
In Colorado, CRS 42-4-1401 sets out the crime of reckless driving. The law forbids driving a vehicle in a way that shows a wanton or willful disregard for the safety of other people or property.
1.1 What kind of driving is considered “reckless”?
Driving is considered to be reckless if it willfully disregards the safety of others. This active disregard for the safety of others does not have to be intentional.1 It does, however, require you to be aware of the risks.
Wanton disregard for the safety of others can also amount to reckless driving.2 Wanton behavior in a car includes a conscious choice to do something dangerous.
So if a normal person would know they are creating a strong chance of hurting someone, it can lead to a reckless driving charge.3
Example: Ezequiel leads police on a high speed car chase. He runs red lights and ignores stop signs.4
1.2 How is recklessness different from carelessness?
Reckless driving involves a conscious disregard for the risks. Driving is careless only if it is done with “criminal negligence,” which is without due regard to the risks.
As a reckless driver, you know – or at least should know – that you are a danger to others; however, you choose to ignore that danger. As a careless driver, on the other hand, you “fail to perceive” the risks you pose and therefore have a less culpable mental state than a reckless driver.5
Since all drivers who are being reckless are also being careless, careless driving is considered a lesser included offense of reckless driving.6 Consequently, careless driving carries lesser penalties than reckless driving.7
1.3 Can I be arrested for driving something other than a car?
Yes. Reckless driving charges can be filed against you for operating a:
- Motor vehicle, including a car, truck, or van,8
- Electric bicycle, or e-bike, or
2. What legal defenses can be asserted?
If you have been accused of reckless driving in Colorado, you can raise several legal defenses. Other defense arguments could also work, depending on the facts of your case. Some of the most common defenses include:
- You were not driving the vehicle,
- The vehicle was being driven, but by someone else,
- Your driving was careless, but not reckless, and
- It was an emergency.
2.1 You were not operating the vehicle
You can only violate CRS 42-4-1401 if you were driving the vehicle. The prosecutor has to prove this beyond a reasonable doubt. If the vehicle was stationary or you were not operating it, this can be a strong defense to a reckless driving charge.
Example: Mark parallel parks on a hill but leaves his emergency break off. His car begins rolling away.
2.2 Someone else was driving the vehicle
You can also argue that it was someone else who was driving the vehicle. This is the mistaken identity defense in Colorado.
Example: Diane lets Dave drive her car. Dave drives recklessly but avoids an arrest. Diane gets accused of reckless driving because she owns the car.
2.3 The driving was careless but not reckless
Proving that your driving was careless, but not reckless, can reduce the charges. While this legal defense is not a complete one – it will not end in an acquittal – it can reduce the penalties you face.
Example: Joan swerves in and out of traffic. She is arrested and accused of reckless driving. She claims it was only careless because she was abiding by the speed limit.
2.4 There was an emergency
If there was an emergency that justified you driving in a reckless manner, the prosecutors may agree to drop the charges. This is called an “affirmative defense” because you are admitting to breaking the law but only because any reasonable person in your position would have done the same thing.
Examples of situations that could potentially justify reckless driving include:
- You were driving someone to the hospital in urgent need of help, such as a woman in labor or a gunshot victim
- You were suffering a medical episode at the time, such as a stroke or diabetic coma
- You were trying to escape certain harm, such as a tornado
3. What are the penalties?
The penalties of a conviction for reckless driving depend on if you have had a prior conviction. All convictions, however, are Class 2 misdemeanors.
If the reckless driving charge is your first one, a conviction can carry the following penalties:
- Between 10 and 90 days in jail, and
- Up to $300 in fines.
You can also be made to pay restitution to anyone who was hurt9 and perform community service.10
If you have been convicted of reckless driving before, the maximum penalties increase to:
- Up to 6 months in jail, and
- Up to $1,000 in fines.
Collateral consequences of a reckless driving conviction include substantially higher insurance premiums. The financial strain of a criminal case can also adversely affect your relationships, family, and physical and mental health – even giving you PTSD.
3.1. DMV points
A conviction for reckless driving adds 8 points to your driving record unless you were riding a bike or an e-bike. This will trigger a license suspension of six months to one year if you already accrued at least four other DMV points within the prior year.11 (Note that careless driving carries only a 4-point driver’s license penalty.)
A reckless driving conviction is also considered a habitual traffic offender strike. In Colorado, if you get convicted of at least three major traffic crimes (that carry at least 8 demerit points) within a seven-year time frame, the DMV will suspend your license for five years.12
If you lose your license, you could potentially lose your job if driving is necessary for you to work. License loss also makes ordinary tasks difficult, such as doing errands or going to the doctor. This is why it is so important to hire legal counsel to fight your charges.
4. Related offenses to reckless driving
Some traffic offenses are related to reckless driving. In some cases, these related offenses can be charged alongside a reckless driving allegation. They include:
- Careless driving (CRS 42-4-1402). Prosecutors often file careless driving charges alongside reckless driving charges. If they fail to prove you acted recklessly, they can still convict you on the lesser offense of careless driving.
- Eluding police (CRS 18-9-116.5 or CRS 42-4-1413). Eluding police can be a misdemeanor or a felony. Both laws prohibit fleeing from police in a car. Felony eluding also requires proof that you drove recklessly.
- Vehicular assault (CRS 18-3-205). This law prohibits driving recklessly or while under the influence and causing a serious injury to someone else. Reckless driving vehicular assault is a class 5 felony punishable by one to three years in prison and/or $1,000 to $100,000.
- Speed contests and exhibition (CRS 42-4-1105). The law prohibits knowingly engaging in a speed contest or exhibition of speed on highways.
- Speeding (CRS 42-4-1101). Exceeding a safe speed limit can be a traffic misdemeanor or infraction.
- Unsafe lane changes (CRS 42-4-1007) – This offense is a class A traffic infraction, carrying fines and DMV points.
- Failure to yield right-of-way (CRS 42-4-703) – This offense is also a class A traffic infraction, carrying a civil fine and DMV points.
- Driving under the influence (CRS 42-4-1301). It may be possible to get a charge for violating Colorado DUI laws reduced to reckless driving.
- People v. Chapman, 557 P. 2d 1211 (1977). CRS 18-1-501 states, “A person acts recklessly when he consciously disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk that a result will occur or that a circumstance exists.”
- Martin v. People, 495 P. 2d 537 (1972) (reckless conduct involves willful or wanton conduct).
- Martin v. People, Supra.
- People v. Esparza-Treto, 282 P. 3d 471 (Colo. App. 2011).
- People v. Pena, 962 P. 2d 285 (Colo. App. 1997). CRS 18-1-501 states, “A person acts with criminal negligence when, through a gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would exercise, he fails to perceive a substantial and unjustifiable risk that a result will occur or that a circumstance exists.”
- People v. Chapman, Supra (careless driving is a lesser included offense of reckless driving: “one who commits reckless driving necessarily has been guilty of careless driving, for the greater degree of negligence includes the lesser.”). See also People v. Zweygardt (Court of Appeals of Colorado, Division Five, 2012) 298 P.3d 1018 (The defendant was found guilty of negligent homicide and three vehicular assault (reckless) charges…”careless driving is not a lesser included offense of vehicular assault (reckless)…evidence that defendant was driving 73 m.p.h. when the applicable speed limit was 55 m.p.h. less than 30 seconds before the accident occurred and was unable to stop at a stop sign before striking the Durango at 62.8 m.p.h. was sufficient, under the evidence presented here, to prove the culpable mental states required for each of his convictions.“).
- CRS 42-4-1402 defines careless driving as operating “a motor vehicle, bicycle, electrical assisted bicycle, or low-powered scooter 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 circumstances.” Careless driving is a class 2 traffic misdemeanor, carrying 10 to 90 days in jail and/or $150 to $300 in fines plus four DMV demerit points. Unlike a reckless driving conviction, careless driving does not count as a habitual offender strike. Though careless driving causing death or bodily injury becomes a class 1 misdemeanor traffic offense carrying 10 days to 1 year in jail and/or $300 to $1,000 in fines.
- See CRS 42-1-102(58).
- See CRS 16-18.5-107 and CRS 42-4-1701(3)(II)(B).
- CRS 42-4-1701(3)(II)(B).
- CRS 42-4-1401(2) and CRS 42-2-127.
- CRS § 42-2-202(2).