“Not guilty.” Those are the two sweetest words that a criminal defense attorney can ever hear. Today, the jury returned this coveted verdict in a speeding trial at the Austin Municipal Court. Sure, it was just a speeding ticket. But for my client, who holds a commercial driver’s license (CDL), it was a very important case. Most people can easily get their tickets dismissed by taking a defensive driving course. However, under the law, anyone holding a CDL does not have this option. Instead, they must either fight the ticket or take a conviction. One of the most common misperceptions is that simply driving over the speed limit is against the law. In actuality, the law states that “an operator may not drive at a speed greater than is reasonable and prudent under the circumstances then existing.” See Tex. Trans. Code §545.351. I discussed this law with the jury panel during the voir dire process, and they were very surprised that there’s more to speeding than simply driving above the speed limit. As I pointed out to them, discovering the actual wording of the speeding law is analogous to finding out that there’s no such thing as Santa Claus.
There’s one wrinkle here: when the State proves that a vehicle was travelling over the speed limit, that’s “prima facie” evidence that the driver’s speed was not reasonable and prudent. I explained to the jury that this only means that if the State proves the speed was over the limit and I present no further evidence regarding the reasonableness of the speed, then I lose. But once I bring forth any evidence that the driver’s speed was reasonable, the State has the burden of proving the speed was unreasonable. Plus, this burden is a heavy one: “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
At the trial, we presented evidence that on the morning of the alleged speeding incident, my client was stuck behind a boat trailer on Highway 183. The boat was being hauled by an undersized pickup truck, and my client testified that he felt that the trailer was creating a hazard on the road. A car in front of my client passed the trailer, and my client followed suit. In order to do so, he had to increase his speed to about 78 mph on a highway that had a speed limit of 65 mph. Other vehicles behind my client also passed the trailer. I successfully argued to the jury that it could consider the other drivers’ behavior as evidence of the reasonableness of my client’s decision.
The State attempted to counter our evidence through the testimony of the police officer, who stated that my client was speeding before and after he encountered this boat trailer. The officer further testified that there was a curve on the road that made it unsafe to travel above 65 mph. The jury was unconvinced. After all, this was a dry day, and my client was a “professional driver.” He testified that he made a “judgment call,” and who was the jury to disagree with his professional judgment?
After about 20 minutes of deliberating, the jury returned its two-word verdict. My client exited the court triumphantly with his clean driving record intact.