A new Georgia law aims to curb illegal street racing

Gov. Brian Kemp signed legislation Monday aimed at halting illegal street racing, which has driven a surge of complaints in metro Atlanta since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Gov. Brian Kemp signed legislation Monday aimed at halting illegal street racing, which has driven a surge of complaints in metro Atlanta since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Gov. Brian Kemp signed a measure Monday that tries to put the brakes on illegal street racing, a troubling trend that has driven a surge of complaints in metro Atlanta since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

The legislation, which enjoyed broad bipartisan support, paves the way for higher penalties for anyone who organizes, promotes or participates in street racing. But critics question whether the attempted crackdown will actually curb the illegal activity.

Under the new law, House Bill 534, authorities can suspend the licenses of some violators for up to a year and impose penalties as high as $5,000. It creates a new offense called “reckless stunt driving” and gives police new powers to seize cars that are involved. Repeat offenders face potential felony charges that carry additional prison time.

“It will not fix Atlanta’s crime situation overnight,” said Kemp, who stood near uniformed law enforcement officers and lawmakers from both parties as he signed the law. “But I believe it will take a few steps in the right direction.”

It’s part of a broader effort across the state to suppress street racing, which could encompass a broad range of crimes: dangerous driving in parking lots, speedy chases down highways or quiet roads, stunts at parking decks or busy intersections in front of large crowds.

Despite Kemp’s dig at Atlanta, the crime hasn’t been confined to the city.

Countless videos have popped up online showing vehicles — sometimes in broad daylight — pulling off tricky maneuvers while scores of spectators watch. Others feature races down city streets and busy interstate highways.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and city lawmakers are under pressure to clamp down on the crime, which endangers drivers and pedestrians, delays commutes and triggers numerous noise complaints from nearby residents.

The Atlanta City Council adopted a measure in August that allowed police to levy fines of up to $1,000 for people who attend a street racing-related event, even if they’re not in a car. Police departments have also devoted more resources to enforcement, including using helicopters to track racing.

In mid-March, authorities arrested more than 100 people suspected of watching cars pull off tricks in a Clayton County parking lot. Some of the spectators were as young as 11. And police said another street racing bust last month led to more than 80 arrests and 45 cars being impounded.

The new law’s critics are skeptical that it will result in less street racing, and they worry the new penalties would be disproportionately used to target people of color.

A recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of Atlanta police data showed the illegal activity has not died down even as law enforcement ramps up its efforts to stop the crime.

A police helicopter image of a car doing stunts in a Kroger parking lot in late February. (Screenshot via Atlanta Police Department)
A police helicopter image of a car doing stunts in a Kroger parking lot in late February. (Screenshot via Atlanta Police Department)

Credit: Screenshot via Atlanta police

Credit: Screenshot via Atlanta police

Devin Barrington-Ward, an Atlanta resident and ally of what he calls the “car enthusiast” community, said he’s worried that the new law will become a pretext for police to aggressively question and detain people, much like the controversial “stop and frisk” tactics in New York.

“We’re already seeing law enforcement try to crack down, and it’s not making a difference,” said Barrington-Ward, a founder of the Black Futurists Group, a social justice organization. “By the time police respond, the people doing the dangerous activity are long gone.”

He said he would rather see public officials create a dedicated space for stunts in a safe and regulated manner.

“Looking toward the criminal justice system for a solution is not the answer,” Barrington-Ward said. “It’s a system steeped in systemic racism, and a majority of the folks in the car enthusiast community are Black and brown people.”

The governor said he backed the legislation after hearing from law enforcement leaders about the need for more “teeth” to sharpen efforts to target a crime that’s plagued parts of metro Atlanta.

“I hear it every week. People are outraged,” Kemp said. “People are sick of it, and what we’re doing today is a big part of trying to send a message that we’re doing all we can with state resources. But it’s really going to have to be local policing that’s moving the needle.”

Staff writer J.D. Capelouto contributed to this article.

MORE DETAILS

Under the new law, authorities can suspend the licenses of some violators for up to a year and impose penalties as high as $5,000.

It creates a new offense called “reckless stunt driving” and gives police new powers to seize cars that are involved.

Repeat offenders face potential felony charges that carry additional prison time.

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