Most Americans prize their freedom of mobility. Yet most do not realize that many states criminalize driving only 10 mph over the speed limit. For example, in Virginia, the top highway speed limit is 70 mph and driving faster than 80 mph can get you a criminal reckless driving conviction — facing up to one year in jail and fines up to $2,500, plus, thousands of dollars in legal fees.
Let’s put this in perspective, on an open freeway with a 70 mph speed limit, the natural flow of traffic is at least 78 to 85 mph. So for driving with the flow of traffic, you could become a criminal and be threatened with a year in jail and thousands more in fines and legal fees.
If government continues criminalizing small, ordinary infractions occasionally committed by everyone, soon every American can be a criminal and even spend time in jail.
Over-criminalization — imposing draconian and wildly unbalanced penalties that have no reasonable relationship to the gravity of the offense — has become a real problem in America. More and more, government is criminalizing insanely idiotic things like paperwork errors, misunderstanding the regulations or laws of a foreign nation, following procedures provided by your employer that unbeknownst to you contravene some obscure environmental policy, etc. Government shouldn’t be criminalizing minor things that virtually everyone does at some point.
We are not arguing that speeding laws should not be enforced. We are simply saying that speeding should be treated as a traffic violation with a reasonable ticket and fine — not as a jailable crime.
There are societal costs to this craziness — jobs lost, careers ruined, families damaged, and upstanding citizens unfairly labeled criminals. What happens to a teacher convicted of so-called criminal reckless driving, or someone with a security clearance?
When an officer can treat a traffic stop as a simple speeding violation or a crime — how comfortable are you that your bumper stickers, vehicle type, or appearance won’t factor into the determination of whether you get a ticket or go to jail?
Most police officers (and all that we know personally) are dedicated and fair. But a few bad apples can abuse their discretion to single out drivers they don’t like and threaten them with serious criminal sanctions.
This isn’t just a theoretical problem. In researching for this article, we spoke with a young professional whom we will call him Robert. He studied criminal justice in college. He works as an advocate for at-risk youth with a local government. Robert is friendly, articulate and cerebral.
One night, Robert was visiting a college friend to work on cooperative youth programs. As the meeting ended, Robert learned that his aging grandmother had fallen seriously ill and was in a hospital about an hour away. He drove his Toyota Camry on a rural freeway towards the hospital. Traffic was light and Robert traveled with the flow of traffic using cruise control. The posted speed limit was 70. Soon an officer who hadn’t used radar, pulled Robert over and accused Robert of reckless driving.
Despite Robert’s calm demeanor, the officer was antagonistic, unwilling to listen and made wild accusations and threats. While it shouldn’t matter, Robert is a black man. And while we may never know for sure, Robert felt like his race was a factor in the officer’s treatment.
Robert hired an attorney and went to court. In the end, he decided to accept a criminal reckless driving conviction with no jail time and paid about $3,000 in fines, court costs and attorney’s fees. That seemed a lot better than the threatened jail time. Given the law’s unreasonable criminalization or normal highway driving and the government’s willingness to use the threat of jail and criminal fines as leverage, he was left with few other options.
Robert was out $3,000 and a lot of time off from work to attend multiple court hearings. Now Robert lives in fear that if his boss found out about his misdemeanor conviction it could jeopardize his bright future. In contrast, a simple speeding ticket would have cost about $200, with no time off from work and no worries about his future. As bad as all of this is, it could have been even worse. Had Robert not had the resources to hire an attorney, he could have received jail time.
Some naively argue that states have these draconian laws to promote safety. But Germany has higher speed limits and comparatively fewer highway deaths. The real reason states criminalize simple speeding is it makes highways cash machines for nearby jurisdictions. A criminal reckless driving conviction can generate ten times the cash. And the threat of jail, allows prosecutors to extract huge fines.
This, simply put, it immoral. It is an abuse of power and shouldn’t be tolerated.
Virginia and other states must review their traffic laws and treat speeding as a traffic violation with appropriate fines. Imposing jail time for a simple traffic violation opens the door to abuse and injustice. Let’s hope that government stops making criminals of good, decent, and productive Americans who happen to drive a little too fast on the freeway.
George Landrith is the President & CEO of Frontiers of Freedom. Dina Roumeliotis is a Research Fellow at Frontiers of Freedom.