Since the onset of COVID-19, our office has seen an increase in the number of racing and reckless driving citations issued as a result of an intense police crackdown on what the media often refers to as "illegal street racing meetups".
What is illegal street racing?
We see three types of events that fall under the umbrella of "illegal street racing". Sometimes these events occur together at the same location or over the course of an evening at various locations.
Intersection Takeovers or Street Takeovers. A large group of drivers congregates at an intersection blocking traffic from all directions. The drivers surround the intersection and prevent normal traffic from passing through the intersection. Then drivers, one or two at a time, enter the middle of the intersection, known as the "pit" and engage in what the police call "rotational burnouts" - basically smoking the tires while traveling a roughly circular path amongst a crowd of onlookers.
Parking lot takeovers. A large group of drivers congregates in a parking lot. This usually occurs at night when the parking lot is empty. Large parking lots like those found in strip malls, shopping centers, or grocery stores are popular locations. The drivers form what could again be described as a "pit" - they gather around in a circular shape creating a space in the middle where drives enter and perform donuts, or what the police describe as rotational burnouts.
Street Racing or Drag Racing. Street racing is often a byproduct of intersection or parking lot takeovers. When drivers are leaving the takeovers, they often engage one another in a drag race. This could be a race from a stop, such as from a red light, or a rolling start.
Why has street racing become more popular with the onset of COVID?
We have asked numerous police officers this question, and they all have a similar answer. They speculate that there has been an increased participation in street racing because people are bored. With so many normal recreational activities no longer available, people have turned to other outlets, such as street racing.
What types of charges do we see?
Drivers who are arrested for participating in street racing usually receive one or more of the following 4 charges depending on the circumstances:
Racing. We see racing charges when drivers participate in street takeovers or drag racing. Sometimes, we see a driver who was not actually participating in street racing receive a racing charge just because he was in the same geographic area as the street takeover. How police officers charge violations varies. Some officers take the position that they will cite anyone in the area because even spectators are participating in a racing event just by being present to watch. Other officers will only ticket drivers who are actively engaged in the racing or street takeover.
Reckless Driving. We see reckless driving charges when the event is taking place on private property, like in the parking lot of a grocery store for example.
Obstructing a highway or public thoroughfare. In an intersection or street takeover, some drivers block the road to create a space for other drivers to do donuts or burnouts. The drivers who block the road are generally cited for obstructing the road. They may also be cited for racing.
Felony Flight. A street takeover often ends when the police arrive on site. When the police arrive, the participants scatter. If the police are trying to stop a fleeing driver, and that driver does not yield to the police but instead keeps driving, the driver may be charged with felony flight from a police officer.
Do people who only watch get tickets?
Yes! However, this appears to depend on the particular police officer. We have interviewed lots of officers about street racing citations, and there appears to be a lot of discretion here. Some officers will only issue a citation to someone they actually observe doing burnouts, or drag racing, or actively blocking traffic.
Other officers will issue tickets to anyone in the area, even if they are not actively participating in the illegal activity. The motive for issuing tickets to drivers just observing appears to be to discourage spectators. These officers argue that if there are no spectators, there would be no illegal street racing.
From a legal standpoint, I don't think there is any merit to a ticket issued to a spectator, and we have gotten such tickets dismissed. However, that won't stop a police officer from issuing the tickets, and potentially arresting the driver. This results in a pretty bad night for the driver, even if the ticket is subsequently dismissed. Our advice is to steer clear of these meetups unless you are willing to be arrested.
Law enforcement is cracking down on street racing.
There are several factors contributing to police targeting street racing.
Complaints from residents and business owners. From what we understand, this is the main driver of the increased law enforcement efforts. When a parking lot takeover occurs, it generates many 911 calls from the nearby business owners as well as passersby. When an intersection takeover occurs, the non-participating motorists, who are caught up in the chaos and who cannot get where they want to go, start calling 911. The police will get dozens of calls from each event. There may be a dozen related events taking place in a single evening at different locations around the valley. This could result in hundreds of 911 calls related to street racing in a single evening. Local business owners have been pressuring the Phoenix Police Department and other law enforcement agencies to take increased action to curb street racing.
Federal and state funding. Phoenix has a task force dedicated to combatting street racing that was formed in early 2019. In late 2019, Phoenix Police Department received federal funding to support their Street Racing Task Force. Phoenix also receives a substantial amount of money from the State to put towards pursuing street racing activities. The street racing task force works with law enforcement entities adjacent to Phoenix as well.
Increased media coverage. If you do a search for illegal street racing in Phoenix, you will find no shortage of stories with pictures of drivers doing donuts with people hanging out the windows of the car in a cloud of smoke. You will also read stories of drivers losing control while doing burnouts and crashing into spectators. There are also plenty of allegations of drug use, drug sales, shootings and impaired driving associated with these events. While not all street racing is this extreme, the pictures and stories leave an impression with readers, and with the legislators.
Arizona legislators are trying to amend the current street racing statutes to include more severe penalties. Currently, there is no ability for law enforcement to impound a vehicle used in street racing. Lawmakers are looking to give police the ability to impound a car for 30 days or more if the driver is charged with street racing.