Full Document

FormatFile SizeNotes
PDF file 0.7 MB

Use Adobe Acrobat Reader version 10 or higher for the best experience.

Research Questions

  1. What is the process for charging and adjudicating reckless speeding violations?
  2. How do the impacts of receiving a misdemeanor conviction for speeding compare with the impacts of receiving an infraction for speeding?
  3. What is the racial disparity in the rate at which motorists stopped for speeding in the reckless range are convicted of a misdemeanor, and what factors can explain this disparity?

Virginia law states that any motorist pulled over for driving 20 miles per hour (mph) or more over the speed limit or driving in excess of 80 mph at any speed limit (or 85 mph as of July 2020) is eligible for a reckless driving citation, which is a Class 1 misdemeanor violation. However, both law enforcement officers and the courts can use discretion to reduce the misdemeanor charge to a simple traffic infraction. In this report, researchers use data on speeding violations in 18 Virginia counties over a nine-year period to examine whether there are racial disparities in who benefits from this discretion and why these racial disparities might exist.

Key Findings

Law enforcement and the courts are afforded significant discretion in misdemeanor cases

  • When Virginia officers pull over a motorist for speeding in the reckless range, they can either charge the motorist with a misdemeanor or downgrade the charge to an infraction. Officers in this sample downgraded the charge to an infraction 58 percent of the time.
  • At the court stage, the court can convict the motorist of the misdemeanor charge, amend the charge downward (typically to an infraction), or dismiss the charge entirely. In this sample, the courts amended or dismissed these misdemeanor speeding charges 42 percent of the time.

Penalties for a misdemeanor conviction are significantly higher than penalties for an infraction

  • A misdemeanor conviction results in a criminal record, higher fines and fees, and a worse driving record, all of which can have important impacts on an individual's life.

Black motorists were more likely to be convicted of a misdemeanor

  • Among motorists cited for speeding in a range that qualified for a misdemeanor, 36 percent of Black motorists were convicted of a misdemeanor, compared with 19 percent of White motorists.
  • Racial disparities were present at both the law enforcement and court stages of the process. Compared with White motorists, Black motorists both were more likely to be charged with a misdemeanor by law enforcement and, conditional on being charged, were more likely to be convicted by the courts.
  • The county in which a motorist was cited explained almost half of the racial disparity in whom law enforcement charged with a misdemeanor.
  • About four-fifths of the racial disparity in whom the court convicted of a misdemeanor could be explained by observable case characteristics, such as whether the motorist attended the court hearing and whether a defense attorney was present.

Recommendations

  • One potential way to remove the option for disparate treatment, and to ensure that motorists in different counties are policed in the same way, would be to move to a statewide system of automated speed enforcement, in which cameras are set up to identify and send citations to speeding vehicles. The misdemeanor speed threshold could be set so that the overall level of enforcement is similar to current levels (in which a majority of motorists' potential misdemeanor charges are discounted), but the criteria would apply to all motorists across the state in the same way regardless of race or location.
  • A large percentage of the racial disparities at the court stage occurred because of racial differences in who attended the court hearing. If this pattern is caused by racial differences in being aware that court attendance is required, the citation issued to motorists could be restructured to make the next steps in the process clearer, and text message reminders for upcoming court dates could be sent to motorists.
  • Many jurisdictions have started to develop online platforms so that court hearings for traffic violations can occur remotely. Such platforms might result in a more standardized process, which might lessen the importance of attorneys — another driver of the overall racial disparity observed at the court stage. Furthermore, these platforms could hide the race of the motorist from the judge, potentially reducing judges' ability to engage in disparate treatment.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Introduction

  • Chapter Two

    Data and Analysis Sample

  • Chapter Three

    The Process for Charging and Adjudicating Reckless Speeding Violations

  • Chapter Four

    The Impacts of Receiving a Misdemeanor Speeding Conviction

  • Chapter Five

    Racial Disparities in Misdemeanor Convictions

  • Chapter Six

    Conclusions and Policy Implications

  • Appendix A

    Identifying Officers Who Did Not Discount Speeds When Issuing Citations

  • Appendix B

    Disentangling Differences in Motorist Speed from Disparate Treatment at the Law Enforcement Stage

  • Appendix C

    Additional Tables

Research conducted by

Funding for this research was provided by gifts from RAND supporters and income from operations. This research was conducted in the Justice Policy Program within RAND Social and Economic Well-Being.

This report is part of the RAND Corporation Research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

Permission is given to duplicate this electronic document for personal use only, as long as it is unaltered and complete. Copies may not be duplicated for commercial purposes. Unauthorized posting of RAND PDFs to a non-RAND Web site is prohibited. RAND PDFs are protected under copyright law. For information on reprint and linking permissions, please visit the RAND Permissions page.

The RAND Corporation is a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis. RAND's publications do not necessarily reflect the opinions of its research clients and sponsors.