One of the most ubiquitous traffic violations in Colorado is Careless Driving. The Colorado Careless Driving statute provides, in part, that:
“A person who drives a motor vehicle, bicycle, electrical assisted bicycle, or low power 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 attendant circumstances, is guilty of careless driving.”
In addition to the state statute, most Colorado municipalities have adopted the Colorado Uniform Traffic Code, which states essentially the same provision, but designates the accusation as a municipal ordinance violation rather than a state criminal offense. The City of Denver also has a municipal ordinance prohibiting Careless Driving, but defines Careless Driving in a different and abbreviated manner. The Denver ordinance also adds that a driver can be considered to have driven carelessly if the driver should lose control of his or her vehicle thereby endangering or colliding with any person, structure, thing, vehicle or other conveyance.
A driver can be charged with Careless Driving either as an ordinance violation, typically heard in a municipal court, or under the state statute, which is typically heard by a judge sitting in a Colorado County Court. Although municipal ordinances are in many ways analogous, this article focuses upon the provisions of the Colorado state Careless Driving statute.
A primary reason the Careless Driving allegation is so common in Colorado is that the charge itself is vague, and open-ended, to the point whereby any type of deviation from routine driving can be considered to be Careless Driving. Thus it can be argued to be applicable in almost any potential circumstance.
In addition to being issued when a person is deemed to have driven carelessly, as the sole offense, a Careless Driving allegation is also frequently issued in conjunction with a speeding violation. This happens if either the officer believes the speeding was, in and of itself, careless, or there was some other independent action of the driver, not directly due to the speed, which the officer believes was careless given the speed the vehicle was traveling. Quite often this additional independent alleged traffic violation is some form of aggressive driving.
Another reason the Careless Driving violation is frequently issued is that Careless Driving can be alleged against a driver for driving that takes place upon private property. Often this is a privately owned and operated parking lot. In contrast, most Colorado traffic citations can be issued only for alleged driving violations occurring on public streets and roadways and cannot be issued for a violation alleged to have occurred upon private property.
In addition to Careless Driving being a vague and open-ended potential misdemeanor traffic offense, Colorado law also sets forth certain specific instances when a person can be considered to have driven carelessly. For instance, bicycle riders are provided certain rights when riding upon a roadway. If a person drives a motor vehicle, in a careless and imprudent manner, unnecessarily close to, toward, or near a bicyclist, the driver is deemed to have driven carelessly.
Perhaps the most pervasive, and surprising circumstance to drivers, is when the charge of Careless Driving is made after there has been a vehicle accident, often regardless of the actual cause and no matter whether the accident is serious or minor. Typically, when an accident takes place, the individual responsible is guilty of violating a relatively specific, and limited in scope, traffic infraction. Such traffic infractions include following too closely, in the event of a rear end collision, or failing to yield to approaching traffic when making a left hand turn, or disregarding a traffic control device, such as a red light or stop sign, in collisions taking place at intersections.
Although it is typically the case that a person in an accident may more accurately be considered guilty of a specifically defined, and limited in scope, traffic infraction, law enforcement officers will routinely issue the vague and substantially more serious misdemeanor traffic offense charge of Careless Driving. This is due, to a large extent, to the later availability to the prosecution of more severe penalties, and also a potential order for restitution being issued against the driver convicted of Careless Driving.
There are substantial differences in the consequences between the numerous traffic infractions and a misdemeanor traffic offense such as CarEless Driving. Traffic infractions are considered civil matters in Colorado and a person normally receives a fine, court costs, and penalty points against their license. A driver cannot be jailed solely upon a traffic infraction conviction and the Court cannot issue an arrest warrant. Careless Driving, as a misdemeanor traffic offense, carries the possibility of substantial criminal penalties.
If a person is convicted of driving carelessly, with no resulting injuries whatsoever to any person, the driver is deemed to have committed the somewhat less serious Class 2 Misdemeanor Traffic Offense. However, if a person drives carelessly, and that careless driving results in a person being injured, or results in the death of a person, or in a pregnancy being prematurely terminated, due to the careless driving, the driver is then alleged to have committed a Class 1 Misdemeanor Traffic Offense.
The less severe Class 2 Misdemeanor Traffic Offense is punishable by a sentence of from ten (10) days to ninety (90) days imprisonment, and a fine of from $150.00 to $300.00, or by both a jail sentence and a fine. The more severe Class 1 Misdemeanor Traffic Offense is punishable by a sentence from ten (10) days to a maximum of one (1) year imprisonment, or by a fine of $1,000.00, or by both a fine and imprisonment. The misdemeanor traffic offense of careless driving is a four (4) point offense unless the Careless Driving results in death in which circumstance it is a twelve (12) point violation.
The consequences of a Careless Driving conviction also vary in another substantial way from a conviction for a traffic infraction. An order of restitution can be entered by a trial court judge against the responsible party in a traffic accident if there is a conviction for a misdemeanor traffic offense against the responsible party. This restitution order can compel the responsible party in a traffic accident to pay amounts to other parties. These amounts are typically for property damages and personal injuries, incurred by the other parties to the accident, in the event certain expenses have not been covered by the responsible party’s vehicle liability insurance. An order for restitution is not allowed under law if the responsible driver is convicted of only a traffic infraction.
Although penalties are less severe a driver has fewer rights in a civil traffic infraction prosecution to defend against the allegation. For instance, an accused person does not have a right to a jury trial in most traffic infraction prosecutions. Many traffic infractions are also strict liability violations. It does not matter, in a strict liability traffic infraction prosecution, whether the person accused intended to violate the law, nor does it even matter whether the person actually knew, as of the time, that they were violating a traffic law. All that needs to be shown, by the prosecutor, is that the person violated a strict liability traffic prohibition.
A prosecution for a strict liability traffic infraction, causing an accident, is analogous to the level of culpability for an individual to be held responsible for civil damages resulting from a traffic accident. The criteria in the civil court, for a damages claim, is typically that a driver was negligent and that the negligence was the cause of the accident. It is not necessary for a party, seeking compensation in a civil court, to show that the accused driver intended to drive negligently, or even that the accused driver understood, at the time, that the driver was driving in a negligent manner.
Although penalties are significantly more severe, there are substantially greater rights a person prosecuted for Careless Driving has in the Court. Among these are the right to a jury trial and to force the prosecutor to prove the individual guilty, beyond a reasonable doubt, of actually having driven carelessly.
There is also another substantial benefit to an accused driver, and a substantial burden of the prosecutor, in bringing, and obtaining a conviction in, a Careless Driving prosecution. A provision in the Colorado Careless Driving statute states that the accused driver must have driven, “without due regard.” This phrase of, “without due regard,” is interpreted to mean that the driver must have, at least to some extent, actually intended to have driven carelessly. In other words, a driver, who did not at all intend to drive carelessly, typically cannot be convicted of Careless Driving. Put another way, a person cannot accidentally drive carelessly.
Careless Driving is a very often issued traffic violation in Colorado. Drivers in the Denver area, and in other areas of the state, should be aware of both the penalties that are possible and their rights to contest the vague catch-all charge of Careless Driving.
Legal Disclaimer – The information contained at this web site is not intended to be legal advice and all information regarding Colorado 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.
Individuals should consult an experienced Colorado criminal lawyer for advice regarding an individual situation.