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Santa Ana officials last week seemed poised to enact policies cracking down on spectators at illegal and dangerous street racing events in their city. 

Freeway-like roads and long gaps between stop lights on Santa Ana’s streets have made the city a prime destination for these types of events — and a frequent presence on social media blogs and YouTube when they yield casualties or altercations. 

One such race notably ended with the death of Gene Harbrecht, a longtime Orange County Register editor whose truck was hit by a BMW racing through the city last year.

Such events are already illegal, but still happen. Council members, in turn, at their last April 20 meeting were set to approve a new law they say could help discourage them — a law which would have made gathering around these events in public a misdemeanor punishable with fines and even jail time — until staff requested it be continued to a later date. 

It’s a policy similar to one recently adopted by the Anaheim City Council, this year. 

City spokesman Paul Eakins said staff pulled the item to allow more time to research answers to council members’ questions, but that it “will return to the council.”

The delay came as activists and active transportation advocates voiced concern about the new proposed policy. 

Namely, critics feared it could set the stage for more policing in a city where police-community relations have been tense and at a time when the U.S. awaited the guilty verdict of Derek Chauvin, the ex-Minneapolis police officer who murdered George Floyd, a homeless Black man, last year in May.

A group of transportation equity advocates, known as the Santa Ana Active Streets Coalition, questioned whether the city should further ramp up law enforcement, when they argue officials should instead be looking at the questionable street infrastructure they’ve built to encourage such events in the first place.

“Our coalition disagrees with criminalizing people in public rights of way, as described in the following ordinance,” wrote the coalition in a letter to the city before Tuesday’s meeting. “Instead of enforcement strategies, we aim to resolve the root case of speeding and street racing in our roads.”

“Simply put, Santa Ana’s wide main roadways incentivize fast driving.”

The ordinance, if approved by the council, would make it a misdemeanor offense to spectate at illegal driving exhibitions, races and sideshows with possible jail time and a maximum $1,000 fine.

The laws would have applied to any person who is “knowingly present” — as in, within 200 feet of the event and the vehicles — as a spectator at one of these events. 

The way Councilmember David Penaloza sees it, “when you are there to spectate, you’re there to support this activity.”

“We all know it’s illegal,” he said in a Tuesday night interview after the council meeting. “The street takeovers are being done for a reason, because they have an audience to satisfy … if there was no one cheering them on … I don’t think these people would do it.”

“Believe me, this is what I hear so often from every type of resident — from the most affluent one, to the least affluent: ‘This is so bad. How can we address it?’”

Penaloza said he wasn’t sure why staff requested the delay, beyond the fact they had some unanswered but unspecified questions. 

Mayor Vicente Sarmiento in a Wednesday text message also said he wasn’t sure — just that it was “pulled by staff.”

It comes as police say they’ve seen an uptick “in calls for service related to speed races and reckless driving exhibitions,” according to a staff report attached to the council’s Tuesday meeting agenda.  

Hundreds of people are known to coalesce around intersections and streets, often at night, which police say can block intersections, halt traffic flow, and ultimately obstruct police’s ability to respond and apprehend the drivers involved. 

“These actions interfere with the police response and facilitate the ability for involved drivers to flee,” the staff report reads. “As a result, some law enforcement agencies have adopted ordinances that ban spectating at street racing events.”

Yet Santa Ana Active Streets in the group’s letter said “We believe that policing will not mitigate Santa Ana’s street racing problem. This approach would be reactive, and we believe a more effective approach will be proactive.” 

“Rather than improving traffic safety, these measures will have the unfortunate consequences of policing innocent civilians rather than those breaking the law.”

Karl Olson, a First Amendment and media lawyer from San Francisco, said the ordinance also raises concerns about First Amendment provisions around the right to assembly: 

“My thought is that I understand why they’d want to regulate the drivers, but going after spectators raises First Amendment problems related to the right of assembly.  If you had a protest which  got out of hand, you could go after folks who engaged in  violence, but not spectators or peaceful protesters.”

It’s a fine balance, as Santa Ana Active Streets in the group’s letter acknowledges: 

“We understand the dangers associated with street racing and residents’ safety concerns regarding street racing. One errant car can result in injury or death of fellow motorists, pedestrians and bicyclists, as we’ve seen happen on our city streets.”

Yet, the group adds: 

“More ticketing will not improve public safety long term, and we fear it is a slippery slope when we are criminalizing people in the public right of way.”

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