California City Passes Law Making It Illegal to Even Be Near a Street Race
Last week, San Jose became subject to borderline draconian street-racing laws after city council (unanimously) voted to pass legislation effectively making it illegal to even watch impromptu automotive exhibitions. However, “spectating” is loosely defined in the new law, as parties don’t have to know a race is going on to get into trouble.
Even milling around a car show before shenanigans break out is enough to earn someone a $1,000 fine and six months in jail.
The new laws give police plenty of power to break up late-night car events, plus the ability to arrest whomever they want — creating a pretty good incentive to just stay home, rather than risk getting into trouble. It also feels like overkill, and it sets an ugly precedent for punishing Californians who aren’t actively contributing to a crime.
The San Jose Police Department doesn’t see things that way, however. “Often times, these individuals are doing these sideshows exactly because people are watching,” SJPD Chief Eddie Garcia told ABC7 News, following the new ordinance’s approval.
Police feel that California’s penchant for street racing is simply to serious a problem to handle with kid gloves. Garcia even went to city council members to explain that races and driving exhibitions often involve hundreds of spectators who can get in the way — sometimes blocking traffic with their own vehicles or impeding a police chase by standing in the way. While it sounds semi-ridiculous, anyone who’s watched enough street racing videos online (or actually attended one) knows that this can and does happen — sometimes accidentally, as everyone simultaneously attempts to leave the scene.
The memorandum cites numerous cases in which street racing or public driving displays ended in tragedy before explaining how authorities want to expand the legal onus to spectators:
Street racing and sideshows attract spectators as well as participants. Sizable crowds will gather to watch races or side shows, where participants exhibit automotive stunts, such as driving in tight circles known as donuts. Spectators will often take video of these events and post them on social media. This behavior can expose street racing to a broader audience and potentially perpetuate the activity and increase its popularity.
In addition to providing an audience for street racing and advertising it on social media, spectators can also help to directly facilitate it. Crowds of spectators can block off intersections and streets from traffic to clear open stretches of road where racing can occur or where automotive stunts can be performed. As they block off intersections or line streets, spectators place themselves in close proximity to speeding vehicles, endangering their own safety as they enable an activity that can endanger others.
As the new ordinance is fairly nonspecific as to what constitutes spectating, guilty parties will be identified by little more than police intuition. If you don’t have a totally plausible excuse for being there, odds are good you’ll be found guilty of something. The new rule even makes it illegal to be present for racing or exhibition “preparations,” which could be as simple as showing up to a car show that later breaks out into a donut competition.
This is the real problem. Since you cannot control everyone at an event, it seems wrong to create a law that penalizes anyone who happens to be within 200 feet of a race or exhibition — which is basically the only hard and fast criteria officers have regarding the matter. We’re also not certain if raids are the safest way to curtail this behavior, especially since people in San Jose now know it’s illegal just to be within the vicinity of illicit activities.
Spectators already flee illegal auto exhibitions when authorities roll in, whether they’ve committed a crime or not. The new ordinance makes it all the more important not to have contact with the police, as saying “I was just spectating” is now an admission of criminal behavior. Attending these events may be less appetizing now, but the police have also incentivized running.
Both San Jose city council and the SJPD plan to regroup in six months to discuss data and trends with the new ordinance in place. If you’d like to examine it yourself, it’s available at San Jose’s legislative website. We’d love to hear your thoughts.
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