California City Passes Bill to Jail Street Racing, Sideshow Spectators for Six Months

Targeting spectators is a new tactic for authorities—and the start of a slippery slope.

byKyle Cheromcha|
California City Passes Bill to Jail Street Racing, Sideshow Spectators for Six Months

Authorities across the country are constantly testing new ways to stop the violent delights and violent ends of street racing. In California, where the problem is particularly widespread, the city of San Jose passed an ordinance this week making it illegal to even watch a street race or sideshow as a spectator, a crime now punishable by a $1,000 fine and six months in jail. It's a bold new tactic for police—and one that warrants a closer look.

ABC7 News reports the San Jose City Council voted unanimously to approve the legislation, which is written in broad strokes to give authorities a lot of latitude in going after spectators. Essentially, police can arrest anyone standing within 200 feet of a street race or "reckless driving exhibition"—think burnout, donut, and drifting shenanigans—taking place on either a public road or an off-street parking lot. Here's the relevant text in full:

"It shall be unlawful for any person to (1) Be knowingly present as a Spectator at a Street Race conducted on a public street or highway; or (2) Be knowingly present as a Spectator at a Reckless Driving Exhibition conducted on a public street or highway or in an Offstreet Parking Facility."

There's also a second section that extends the misdemeanor charge to anyone present during "preparations" for said races and exhibitions. Preparations are loosely defined to cover everything after the very first person shows up at a spot—that includes just milling around a few parked cars waiting for something to happen.

"Often times, these individuals are doing these sideshows exactly because people are watching," San Jose Police Department Chief Eddie Garcia said to ABC7.

That's a fair observation, and the city's recent string of injuries and fatal accidents tied to street racing is a just cause. Set aside the debate on whether it's reasonable or even feasible for police to show up to a crowd of potentially hundreds of spectators and grab the small handful they can while everyone else slips away; let's also acknowledge that attending an illegal and dangerous event does make someone part of the problem. Still, the heavy-handedness on display here should concern both car enthusiasts and fans of reasonable policing alike.

It all hinges on the word "knowingly," which is left to the discretion of the arresting officer. Anyone who's ever attended a car meet—from formal Cars & Coffee-style events to a casual owners gathering—knows that it just takes one or two idiots to spoil it for everyone. If someone decides to spin their tires or even rev their engine (both of which are covered under the "preparations" section) within sight or earshot of a passing cop, they can theoretically arrest everyone present, even those who were just there to hang out.

Proving prior knowledge of someone else's burnout in that kind of situation would be challenging in court. Then again, so would convincing a skeptical officer that you didn't know what was about to go down in the moment. It's especially fraught when you consider the fact that sideshows often involve the sudden takeover of a public road or intersection with random passersby well within that 200 feet radius. As written, simply stopping and staring at the spectacle could potentially count as an arrestable offense.

The law is supposed to hold people accountable for their decisions to attend a street race or sideshow. What it also does is potentially hold people accountable for the decisions of complete strangers. So just how far will San Jose go in its enforcement? We're about to find out.

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