Hollywood has a rich history with street racing culture, from the golden days of James Dean to the Fast & Furious movie franchise today.
And while we love racing on our screens, California police hate to see it on the streets.
Street racing is illegal in California, usually punishable by up to 90 days in county jail and a fine of up to $1,000. However, penalties can vary, depending on the criminal histories of the people involved, other charges and the facts of the case (we’ll get into that below).
First, let’s talk about how California law defines street racing.
Legal Definition of Street Racing
California law defines a street race as a “speed contest” (Vehicle Code 23109(a)). If you have been accused of “willfully engaging in a speed contest,” prosecutors will need to prove four important elements in order to show you were guilty:
- You were a participant in a motor vehicle race.
- This took place on a “highway.”
- You willfully engaged.
- The race was against another motorist or a clock.
We just said a lot in four quick bullet points, so let’s go in better detail exactly what this means.
1. You were a participant in a motor vehicle race.
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The law defines a motor vehicle as a passenger vehicle (car or truck), motorcycle, bus, commercial vehicle or tractor. It’s important to note that it does not include bicycles, scooters or water vehicles.
Example: Mike and Steve have rented dockless scooters and decide to race in the bike lanes of a public road. In the heat of the race, both racers swerve into the main lanes and interfere with traffic.
Because they are not driving motor vehicles, Mike and Steve would not be guilty of willfully engaging in a speed contest, but they could be charged with other crimes.
Example: Mike is an avid street racer, and he has invited his friend Steve to join him at a race sitting “shotgun” in his car. Police observe the race and arrest all involved.
Because Steve willingly participated in the race, even though he did not drive a car in the race, he could be convicted of willful engagement in a speed contest.
2. This took place on a “highway.”
For the purposes of the California Vehicle Code, a highway is any publicly maintained roadway open to the public for the purposes of vehicular travel. This means this law most commonly applies to Interstate highways, state highways and public roads.
It does not apply to parking lots, private roads or anywhere not normally open to the public
Example: Mike owns a bowling alley, and after closing time, invites Steve over to drag race in the alley’s parking lot.
Because this occurred on private property, this likely was not willful engagement in a speed contest, but Mike and Steve could be guilty of other crimes.
3. You willfully engaged in a race.
In order to convict you, a prosecutor will need to show that you chose, in your own free will, to participate in a street race.
Example: Mike is an avid street racer, but his girlfriend Samantha objects to his racing. One night Mike tells Samantha he is taking her on a date, but instead of a date, he takes her to a street race. She tries to leave, but Mike becomes visibly angry and forces her into the passenger seat of his car for a race.
Because Samantha wasn’t a willful participant in the race, she could not be charged with willful engagement in a speed contest.
Example: Oleg is a high school exchange student, and he is eager to make friends. He befriends Mike, who invites Oleg to a late night street race. Oleg is uncomfortable with the situation and says he’d rather not participate. Mike (wrongly) tells him that street racing is legal on this stretch of public road late at night, so Oleg chooses to help as a timer for cars.
Even though Oleg didn’t think he was breaking the law, he was still a willing participant, and because he wasn’t driving, he could be charged with “aiding and abetting” a speed contest.
4. The race was against another motorist or a clock.
The last element that a prosecutor would need to show is that you were competing in a “speed contest” directly against another motorist, or that you were being timed.
However, it is important to note that there are two major exceptions in the “race against the clock” rule. It is not illegal if:
- The route your were traveling was more than 20 miles, or
- You never broke the speed limit.
Let’s look at two last examples.
Example: Mike and Steve are in a car, stopped at a red light on a public road. Another car pulls up and revs its engine. Mike and Steve rev their engine back and they race.
Because this impromptu race was willful, on a public road and between two cars, this would likely be considered willful engagement in a speed contest.
Example: Mike is a truck driver, doing a run from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Time is money in the trucking business, so Mike challenges himself to set a new personal best on his latest run.
Mike is engaged in a willful race against the clock on public roads. However, he was timing himself on a route longer than 20 miles, so this was not a speed contest.
Penalties for Street Racing in California
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In most cases, street racing in California is a misdemeanor. It could carry penalties of:
- A county jail sentence between 24 hours and 90 days.
- A fine between $355 and $1,000.
- 40 hours of community service.
- Suspension of your driver’s license for a time period between 90 days and 6 months.
- Impoundment of your vehicle for up to 30 days.
However, if you have had a prior conviction for street racing in the last 5 years and/or someone was injured in the race, you could face “enhanced” penalties.
For someone with a prior conviction, penalties increase to:
- A county jail sentence between 4 days and 6 months.
- A fine between $500 and $1,000.
- Mandatory suspension of your driver’s license for 6 months.
If the speed contest caused injury to another person, penalties increase to:
- A county jail sentence between 1 month and 6 months.
- A fine between $500 and $1,000.
Then, if the race caused a “serious bodily injury” — defined by California state law as something like a concussion, loss of consciousness, bone fracture — this could be treated as a felony, based on the prosecutor’s discretion. In that case, penalties can range as high as:
- Jail time up to 3 years.
- Fines up to $10,000.
Legal Defenses Against Street Racing Charges
Facing jail time, suspension of your license and impoundment of your car can make it hard to get to work, to meet your responsibilities and live your life.
The great news is that it’s possible to fight these charges and get them reduced, if not dismissed entirely. As we outlined above, there are a number of important details that a prosecutor needs to prove in order to convict you of illegal street racing.
By working together with a skilled criminal defense attorney, you can work to build your defense and dissect the prosecution’s.
Robert M. Helfend has served the Los Angeles area for more than 30 years, defending cases from simple drug charges to murder, and he is prepared to take your case. Call today for a free, no-obligation case evaluation — 310-456-3317.