Victory at 104 MPH: How I Walked a Client Out of Court with No Jail Time

Charles V. Hardenbergh
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As the young lady started to cry, I began to feel a small glimmer of hope.  She was in front of a judge for the first time in her life, and it was a doozy.  One of Rockbridge County’s finest had pulled my client over after clocking her at 104 mph in a 70 mph zone.  Obviously, that kind of speeding violation will result in jail time from most judges, and Lexington isn’t the place to be facing a charge at that speed.  Standards can be harsh in the western part of the state, and my research revealed that the average length of active jail sentences handed out at that speed was over 10 days!

Her parents found out about our firm and reached out for help. It was a tough call.  I had to be candid with them and explain that the best-case scenario would almost certainly include a stay in the Rockbridge Regional Jail.  I tried to console them by reassuring them that it was one of the best jails in the state, but they couldn’t even imagine their little girl getting locked up with a bunch of dangerous and violent inmates.  Although I explained that my ability to reduce the severity of the sentence was limited at that speed, I told them that no case is hopeless.

I remembered the first time I broke a record in Rockbridge District Court.  I had been representing a young lady charged with driving 90 mph in a 65 mph zone (now posted at 70).  I had explained to her parents that she would almost certainly be found guilty as charged, but I was happy to try to convince the judge to reduce the charge for her.  I presented my evidence, which was very strong after she had taken all of my advice on preparing for trial.  Nobody was more surprised than me when the judge reduced the charge to simple speeding. 

Techniques for Beating a Reckless Driving Charge

I had used a technique in that case that is now known as the “Avalanche Method.”  This is a process that involves putting on one piece of evidence after another, and the best prepared defenses can take 15 minutes or more.  The key is to stipulate evidence sufficient and let the trooper tell the judge about the speeding incident.  As long as the officer agrees that my client was “polite and cooperative” (magic words that can help at trial), I don’t even cross-examine them.  Instead, I switch gears as quickly as possible by starting to say good things about the defendant.

The officer has had a minute or two at the most, but my evidence will take much longer to present.  If I spend 20 minutes presenting evidence that my client is a good person, I have just dominated the process and stolen the show by putting my client right at center stage with a full spotlight.  The Avalanche takes advantage of the ability to present an overwhelming body of evidence, which snowballs to the point that the judge just wants to get the case finished and move on with his docket. 

If every lawyer prepared a defense as an Avalanche defense, the courts would grind to a halt.  They would be unable to hear more than 40 or so cases a day, and I have been in courts that had as many as 1,700 cases on the docket in one courtroom.  One must be familiar with the economics of criminal justice to appreciate the value of the Avalanche.  The truth of the matter is that lawyers who are thoroughly prepared can clog up the courts, and prosecutors are highly incentivized to enter into favorable plea deals with defense counsel who are prepared to defend their clients. 

When a client spontaneously cries, that is one factor that sometimes helps, because it brings the defendant’s emotions to the surface and reveals visible proof of suffering on the part of someone who doesn’t want to be in trouble.  But at 104 mph, you need more than a few well-placed tears to stay out of jail.  It would take a miracle to keep this young lady out of jail, but I knew I had a fighting chance when I walked into court and saw a substitute judge on the bench.  The judges who usually sit in the in the 25th District would usually lock up any defendant at that speed, but a retired judge happened to be there.

I won’t take the space here to describe the entire Avalanche Method, but almost all of my best tips, tricks and secrets are in my book The Secret Truth About Reckless Driving by Speed in Virginia, available for free on this website.  In this young lady’s case, we submitted the following evidence: 1) A perfect driving record; 2) A very good transcript from Virginia Tech; 3) A certificate from an eight-hour driver improvement clinic; 4) A certificate from a four-hour Reckless/Aggressive clinic; 5) A calibration in her favor by over 5 mph; 6) A safe driving contract with her parents; 7) An essay on the dangers of speeding; 8) A letter verifying 37 hours of community service; and 9) four good character letters.

Reckless Driving Charges Reduced to Speeding

Her parents also testified, and all of them did a great job on the stand—just like we had rehearsed at my office an hour earlier.  There were no surprises, and other than a few tears, even my client had a surprisingly easy time getting through the trial.  As I made my closing argument, I gambled on a big request.  I asked the judge to consider suspending any jail time that he might otherwise impose because of the time she had spent performing community service.  It was the fastest speed that anyone would have walked out of General District court with no jail time since anyone kept record.  The courtroom was silent when I finished, and we were all waiting to find out her fate.  One of the biggest thrills for any defense attorney is to have a judge say, “I probably shouldn’t do this, but . . . .”

I really appreciated that client, and especially her parents, for helping us set a new record in this tough court.  We can’t win great cases without great clients who help us assemble an overwhelming package of evidence to submit to the Court.  In this case, the parents came to court with us and testified that their daughter had never been in trouble before.  They told the judge they were there because they cared about their daughter and her future, and it was clear that the Court did not need to impose as much punishment as usual.

Everyone, particularly students (who sometimes think rules don’t apply to them), should remember that the highways of Virginia are heavily patrolled, and speed limits are strictly enforced.  You don’t want to be the defendant that helps us set our next record.

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