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F.C. Police Target Road Rage in ‘Smooth Operator’ Initiative

Reitze: ‘Hard to Prove Intent’ for Aggressive Driving Charge

REITZWhen the City of Falls Church Police Department announced it would implement a so-called “Smooth Operator” initiative this month to crack down on aggressive driving, some online readers of the News-Press expressed concern that officers would issue too many questionable judgment-call citations for the class one misdemeanor.

But in an interview this week, F.C. Police Chief Harry Reitze told the News-Press proving the “harmful intent” needed to in order convict someone of aggressive driving is difficult to do.

 

Reitze: ‘Hard to Prove Intent’ for Aggressive Driving Charge

REITZ

Police Chief Harry Reitze (Photo: News-Press)

When the City of Falls Church Police Department announced it would implement a so-called “Smooth Operator” initiative this month to crack down on aggressive driving, some online readers of the News-Press expressed concern that officers would issue too many questionable judgment-call citations for the class one misdemeanor.

In an interview this week, F.C. Police Chief Harry Reitze told the News-Press proving the “harmful intent” needed to in order convict someone of aggressive driving is difficult to do.

Statistics released to the News-Press Tuesday report that not a single citation was issued for aggressive driving in 2008, 2009 or thus far for 2010. The F.C. Police Department is five days into the first of four weeklong waves of the regionwide program.

“What you need for prosecution [for aggressive driving] requires a lot more than someone weaving in and out of cars, for example,” Reitze said. “It may simply be a traffic offense of reckless driving. It depends on the circumstances and the judgment of the office.”

That may explain why, while there have been zero citations for aggressive driving, 76 citations have been issued for reckless driving since 2008, 11 of which occurred as of June 1.

Aggressive and reckless convictions carry the same penalty parameters for drivers, while aggressive driving is harder to prove. But both can result in no more than one year behind bars and/or up to $2,500 in fines.

F.C. police officers have been advised by the city attorney’s office to charge offenders with reckless driving because to prove someone is driving with an aggressive intent “requires officers to testify on driving behavior that would have to be observed over a distance or period of time,” F.C. Communications Director Barbara Gordon told the News-Press.

“Due to the amount of traffic congestion in the City and the fact that most aggressive driving behavior constitutes, in and of itself, reckless driving, the City’s attorney prefers that police charge reckless driving,” Gordon said.

Aggressive driving is defined under Virginia state code as failure to drive on right side of highway, failure to observe lanes marked for traffic, following too closely, failure to stop and yield right of way, evasion of traffic control devices and passing when overtaking a vehicle, among other things.

However, Reitze said just because someone is pulled over for following too closely “doesn’t mean they are driving aggressively.” Aggressive driving, he explained, is “with the intent to intimidate, put fear into people, cause harm or show rage.”

Aside from routine traffic-stop steps officers already follow, none have undergone any specific training for the “Smooth Operator” program, though Reitze said City Attorney John Foster “knows the state code and is very good at instructing our officers.”

“Our officers know how important it is to make their case clear under the code. Just because someone failed to yield doesn’t mean it’s aggressive. They could simply be on their cell phone,” Reitze added.

Officers also ask routine questions during a traffic stop or when responding to an accident. Reitze said the “whole point of that interview begins with the officer evaluating the person’s attitude and body language to help the officer learn more on what they don’t already know [about a driver’s intent].”

Similar to the actions of aggressive driving but lacking the intent, the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicle’s (DMV) website offers a lengthy list of what’s considered “reckless” by law — from failing to give a proper signal to passing a school bus.

Reckless driving convictions like driving too fast for conditions or speeding 20 mph or more above the posted speed limit will stay on an offender’s DMV record for 11 years. It can also result in a suspended license.

Reitze reiterated the “Smooth Operator” program’s single purpose is an educational way to call attention to road safety, and not a crackdown for purposes of generating revenue for the City.

“We would never have this on radio, TV or in the newspaper if our sole intent wasn’t education. If that wasn’t the case, we would just start summoning violations without alerting the public. It’s about making our streets safe,” he said.

Countless surrounding jurisdictions also participate in “Smooth Operator’s” crackdown on aggressive driving, including Fairfax County, Alexandria City and Arlington County, to name a few. Founded in 1997, Smooth Operator is special to law enforcement and public safety officials throughout Virginia, Washington, D.C., Maryland and Pennsylvania.

The first of three waves of enforcement against aggressive driving in the City of Falls Church ends this Saturday, June 5, with another three running from July 5 – 11, Aug, 1 – 7 and Sept. 5 – 11.

“Violations like tailgating or not using seatbelt often times have a big impact,” said Reitze. “Statistics following programs like these may show minor results, but the truth is those traffic violations can be extremely tragic.”

More information about the “Smooth Operator” initiative can be found online at www.smoothoperatorprogram.com.