Thursday, April 20, 2 p.m. update:
The Fresno City Council delayed a vote on imposing penalties on street racers and sideshows. Several councilmembers raised civil liberty concerns about the proposed ordinance. They also said further review of the proposal was needed.
The item is scheduled to return to the city council on Thursday, April 27.
As the Fresno Police Department grows to record numbers, Chief Paco Balderrama says he now has the ability to crack down on street racing.
At a Wednesday news conference in front of City Hall, Balderrama, Councilman Garry Bredefeld and Mayor Jerry Dyer announced a plan to add fines to those who participate in street racing and sideshows.
The bill, scheduled to be heard at Thursday’s Fresno City Council meeting, would add a $1,000 fine to any driver, passenger, promoter, or even spectator of street racing or a sideshow. Such behavior is already punishable by six months in jail.
“The adrenaline rush won’t be free,” Dyer said. “This ordinance is designed — if you take away the spectators, if you take away the facilitator, if you take away the organizer, there’s a good chance we’re not going to have sideshows in our city.”
The ordinance is similar to what several other California cities enacted. A new state law as of Jan. 1 allows drivers to be charged with vehicular manslaughter if someone dies as a result of street racing or a sideshow.
New Street Racing Team
Dyer and Balderrama alluded to a new street racing team, funded from the previous year’s budget. Budget documents last year estimated $1.1 million in street racing fines. That is expected to cover costs for the team of 10 police officers, one sergeant, and a supervisor.
Last week at a police swearing-in and promotion ceremony, Balderrama announced that Fresno had 848 sworn officers — its largest-ever force.
“We’re using criminal intel information to determine where these (street racing) sites are going to take place and we’re breaking them off where they happen. So the frequency has gone down,” Balderrama said.
Balderrama believes the financial disincentive will work. He says a 30-day impound could cost up to $6,000, on top of the $1,000 fine.
“We’re taking this sideshow issue very seriously and we’re being proactive,” Balderrama said. “The fact that we’re going to take away their toy for 30 days should carry some weight.”
Last year, Fresno police issued 379 reckless driving citations related to street racing/sideshows and impounded 441 cars. Balderrama says those numbers are on pace to increase this year.
Civil Liberty Questions
The bill would make it illegal to be a spectator, defined by the city as anyone present for “the purpose of viewing, observing, watching or witnessing the event as it progresses.”
Another definition defines a spectator as being within 300 feet of a street racing or sideshow activity.
“There have been no legal challenges to any of these statutes that I’m aware of,” said City Attorney Andrew Janz.
Fresno-based civil rights attorney Kevin Little is not so sure.
“It is neither carefully nor sufficiently narrowly drafted. As written, it has significant vagueness/overbreadth issues,” Little told GV Wire in an email.
Little questions whether the city would be able to prove that passengers and spectators were “knowingly present” — meaning they knew something illegal was about to happen.
“A law which does not clearly define the conduct it prohibits is both unconstitutionally vague and overbroad,” Little said.
Greg Hill, a Torrance attorney who has defended spectators, says the city may be in the right.
“I do not think there is a constitutional right to assembly that is infringed, as spectating is not really an assembly like a demonstration. There is also not a freedom of speech issue. However, if the statute in Fresno were to be challenged on constitutional grounds (as an unconstitutional First Amendment violation), it would be regarded as content-neutral and be subject to intermediate scrutiny, which it would pass on public safety grounds most likely,” Hill said via email.
Watch: 2021 Fresno Street Racing Crackdown
No Karbassi at News Conference
Bredefeld is partnering with Councilwoman Annalisa Perea to introduce the bill.
Mike Karbassi, the northwest Fresno councilman who has been highly involved in the effort to crack down on street racing, was not at the news conference. He also did not have a hand in crafting the proposal.
As to why Karbassi wasn’t involved in this bill, Dyer said: “Councilmember Bredefeld reached out to Annalisa Perea for support, and generally that’s what happens on the council. You’ll get co-sponsors.’
However, Dyer said he talked to Karbassi about being at an upcoming news conference about the police department’s new street racing team.