Vehicle Code 23103 VC – California’s Reckless Driving Law


Can someone go to jail for reckless driving? (Vehicle Code 23103)

A discussion of reckless driving, and when it rises to the level of a crime for which one can go to jail per California Vehicle Code 23103 VC. Penal Code Vehicle Code 23103 VC is California’s basic law against reckless driving. It makes it a misdemeanor to drive: 1. On a highway or in an off-street parking facility, and 2. With a wanton disregard for the safety of people or property. More info at

California Vehicle Code 23103 VC defines the crime 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 of reckless driving...reckless driving 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 defense strategies include showing that

  • the defendant was not the actual driver,
  • the driving was not reckless, and / or
  • the driver was acting out of necessity.


A violation of this statute is a misdemeanor (as opposed to a felony or an infraction). The crime is punishable by:

  • imprisonment for 5 to 90 days in county jail, and/or
  • a fine between $145 and $1,000.

These penalties grow more severe if the offense causes injury to another person.

Our California criminal defense attorneys will highlight the following in this article:

car speeding through a winding road as an example of reckless driving
Reckless driving is when someone drives with a wanton disregard for the safety of people or property.

1. How does California law define reckless driving?

A prosecutor must prove the following to convict a defendant of reckless driving in California:

  1. the defendant drove a vehicle on a highway or in an off-street parking facility, and
  2. 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 VC 23103, a “highway” is any area (such as a street) that is:

  1. publicly maintained, and
  2. 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:

  1. he is aware that his actions present a substantial and unjustifiable risk of harm, and
  2. he intentionally ignores that risk.4

Note that the driver does not have to intend to cause damage to be guilty of reckless driving.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 California expressway at night when no other cars are around. Here, while she is guilty of speeding, Maria is not guilty of reckless driving. 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 are:

  1. defendant was not the driver,
  2. the driving was not reckless, and/or
  3. necessity.

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 a car. For example, perhaps he was only a passenger.

2.2. The driving was not reckless

Recall that reckless driving 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.

2.3. Necessity

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 reckless driving, an accused can attempt to show that he committed the crime since he had no other choice (e.g., because of an emergency).

man in jail on a Vehicle Code 23103 VC charge
A violation of 23103 VC can result in a fine and/or jail time

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 conviction also places 2 points on the offender's driver's license. Accumulating too many points in a given time period can cause the person to face a license suspension for being a negligent operator.

3.1. With minor injury

If reckless driving causes a minor 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

Reckless driving 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 jail, and/or
  • a fine of up to $10,000.9

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 reckless driving conviction will not produce this result.

5. Can a person get a conviction expunged?

A person guilty under this statute can get an 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. These are:

  1. reckless driving resulting in specific serious injuries – VC 23105,
  2. wet reckless, and
  3. speed contests – VC 23109.

7.1. Reckless driving resulting in specific serious injuries – VC 23105

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:

  1. he commits reckless driving, and
  2. it causes serious injury (and the injury is not listed within VC 23105).

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:

  1. results from a DUI plea bargain, and
  2. includes a notation indicating there was alcohol and/or drug use involved.

7.3. Speed contests – VC 23109

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 additional help...

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Call us for help at (855) LAW-FIRM

For additional guidance or to discuss your case with a criminal defense attorney, we invite you to contact us at Shouse Law Group.

For information on reckless driving charges in Nevada and Colorado, please see our articles on:

Legal References:

  1. CALCRIM No. 2200 - Reckless Driving. Judicial Council of California Criminal Jury Instructions (2017 edition).

  2. See same.

  3. See same.

  4. See same. See also People v. Schumacher (1961) 194 Cal.App.2d 335; and, People v. Young (1942) 20 Cal.2d 832.

  5. See same.

  6. CALCRIM No. 2200 - Reckless Driving. See also People v.Nowell (1941) 45 Cal.App.2d Supp. 811.

  7. California Vehicle Code 23103c VC.

  8. California Vehicle Code 23104a VC.

  9. California Vehicle Code 23104b VC.

  10. California Penal Code 1203.4 PC.

  11. California Vehicle Code 23105b VC.

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