By Caroline Leak

It was 6 a.m. on a Saturday in July when Uber driver Christopher Elliott was heading back to Washington, D.C., from a vacation with friends in New Orleans. A cop pulled him over on Interstate 81 and said Elliott was going 96 mph, an offense that could require jail time.

Elliott, 31, pleaded not guilty in Lexington-Rockbridge County General District Court on Oct. 20 as he faced potential suspension of his driver’s license along with hefty court fines. Stephen Wills, Elliott’s attorney, told the judge that Elliott couldn’t lose his license because he drives to support himself.

Elliott works at Best Buy full time, but he said he uses the extra income from driving for Uber three or four nights a week to pay his bills and put away money in his savings account.

Judge Thomas Roe, a Roanoke County General District judge who was helping out in Rockbridge County that day, ruled that Elliott could continue to drive for the next six months, until April 26, 2018, his next court date.

The charge will be reduced to driving 80 mph in a 70 mph zone if Elliott makes it to April without getting charged with other offenses. Elliott must also enroll in a Virginia Alcohol Safety Action Program (VASAP) and go to driving education classes. And he must pay $454 in fines, plus cover the cost of hiring a lawyer.

States differ greatly in how their police forces deal with speeders. In Tennessee, one of the more lenient states, the maximum speeding fine for a first offense is $50. But drivers pulled over in Virginia face up to $2,500 in fines and up to a year in jail.

“I think everything went pretty well, considering I’m not in jail and my license was not suspended,” Elliott said after the hearing.

He said he has never received a speeding ticket before, and described the experience as “nerve-racking.”

“I thought I wasn’t going more than 80,” Elliott said.

Rockbridge County Sheriff’s Deputy Chris Norris, the cop who pulled Elliott over, said reaching 80 mph isn’t hard to do.

“I could stop people going 80 miles per hour all day long, but usually I wait for someone going faster,” Norris said. “But 96 miles an hour? You kind of have to work at that, to get up to that speed. You have to make a conscious effort to do that.”

Norris testified that Elliott was attempting to pass another car that was traveling at roughly the same speed.

But Elliott said the car was attempting to pass him.

Norris pulled both cars over.

“He popped the person at 97 mile per hour and me at 96,” Elliott said. “I have no way of contesting what the officer said or proving that I wasn’t going that fast.”

In Elliott’s court hearing, Wills emphasized that Elliott would have been caught a long time ago if he was a chronic speeder.

“He’s asking for an opportunity for redemption, Judge,” Wills said.

Rockbridge County’s ‘Bread and Butter’

Elliott was one of 41 people charged with reckless driving whose cases were heard on Oct. 20.

That was a “light day,” said Chief Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Jared Moon.

“Our reckless driving cases are our bread and butter because we get so many of them,” he said.

More than 736 people have died in car crashes in Virginia this year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

NHTSA’s data show that Virginia’s car crash fatality rate consistently falls below the national average. In 2016, nearly 12 people died nationally in fatal car accidents per 100,000 people. In Virginia, nine people died per 100,000 people.

Because two busy interstates—I-65 and I-81—run through Rockbridge County, the police officers patrolling the roads answer many calls about speeders and car accidents.

And they have stories to tell. Before the morning hearings began on Oct. 20, several officers recalled their experiences on the road.

“This guy just flew past me on a motorcycle,” one officer said.

The others shook their heads as the cop recounted pulling the speeder over. The stories continued until the bailiff called for order.

Norris and the other cops took their seats after Judge Roe walked in and called the first case of the day.

Wayne Fuchs, a case manager with the Virginia Alcohol Safety Action Program, said about 8,000 to 10,000 speeding violations come through Lexington-Rockbridge County District Court each month.

Nearly 40 percent of fatal car crashes were caused by speeding this year, according to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles.

Not every defendant is accompanied by a lawyer as he or she approaches the bench. But Elliott followed Wills, wringing his hands as he approached the judge.

Norris stood by the bench as Elliott and Wills approached. The officer held a binder open, thick with pages of details of each traffic stop.

In October, Norris issued 124 summons for reckless driving. Norris consistently doles out some of the highest numbers of tickets in the Rockbridge County Sheriff’s office, Fuchs said.

“I have to keep copious notes just because of the volume of tickets I write,” Norris said.

Norris, who has served as a police officer since 2004, said he respects Judge Gordon Saunders, who usually presides over the Lexington-Rockbridge County General District Court.

“I think he is fair. He’s very personal,” Norris said about Saunders. “He is lenient when leniency is needed. But he’s also strict when that’s needed.”

Moon said Saunders is tough, but consistent with his rulings.

“He sets the parameters for what to expect. There’s uniformity,” Moon said. “Once you get into the triple digits, you can expect the person to have to spend some time in jail.”

Thanksgiving in Jail

In nearby Botetourt County, it is likely that Elliott would have faced jail time. Judge Bill Cleaveland typically sends offenders to jail if they are clocked going over 90 mph – one day in jail for each mile per hour over 90.

A Washington and Lee University student was one of those unlucky offenders. He was clocked at 99 mph when he was pulled over at midnight in Botetourt County on May 25, 2015.

“I guess I zoned out and my foot was a little too heavy on the pedal,” he said.

He’d been traveling since 6 a.m. the day before, driving to North Carolina after attending his brother’s high school graduation in Massachusetts. He was due to start his summer job as a camp counselor.

The student had to spend five nights in jail in November 2015.  He was separated from other prisoners, and struggled to sleep in a cell with a glaring overhead light that never went off.

He was placed on driving probation for a year, meaning he had to go 12 months without incurring any driving violations. The student completed probation, and his record was wiped clean.

The judge met with him a few months after he served his jail time.

“He [the judge] asked me if I had learned my lesson,” the student said. “I told him I had.”

Published Dec. 13, 2017