As a deadly street racing crisis persists in Santa Ana despite efforts to crack down, City Council members are moving forward with a new law that could possibly fine and even jail spectators at illegal street racing and takeover events.

Council members voted 4-3 to give initial approval to a proposed law at their Tuesday night meeting, which would apply to bystanders who are “knowingly” present and within 200 feet of such events in public.

But there’s already concern among some critics, and a few on the council, about whether the law is a slippery slope — a criminalization tool to be used “subjectively” that raises First Amendment right to assembly questions — while overlooking what some say is the real root cause of the issue: The city’s infrastructure of wide intersections and racetrack-like streets.

[Read more about that debate, from a previous story on the issue, here. ]

In response to some of those concerns, Council member Thai Viet Phan on Tuesday revised the proposed policy to first require a warning to those caught specating, in an effort to avoid penalizing innocent bystanders.

If they’re found at such an event again, spectators would be hit with an administrative fine, under the proposed law. If they’re caught again a third time, they could face a misdemeanor charge punishable by six months of jail time.

The proposed law will come back to the council at a future date for a final vote. Three council members — Johnathan Hernandez, Jessie Lopez, and Mayor Vicente Sarmiento — still opposed the law on Tuesday, despite the tweaks agreed upon by the council majority.

The law is meant to chip away at what city officials and police say is a main motivator for such events: The audience. 

Such street racing events are already illegal, but still happen. In turn, police officials told council members Tuesday night, the issue could be solved by taking away the entertainment and attention aspect, as such events often go viral when filmed and posted to social media or YouTube.

Additionally, some spectators may be drivers themselves, while others may have played a role in coordinating the event, said Santa Ana police Cmdr. Chuck Elms. And when police respond, he said, the spectators usually inhibit officers’ ability to arrest drivers. 

“The problem is we can only target one to two vehicles — three if we’re lucky — because we have to navigate through a few hundred spectators … they block police, vandalize police cars — that gives the drivers a chance to get away,” Elms said. 

“If we start to target spectators, they will stop going to Santa Ana,” he said later during the meeting.

Council member Hernandez voiced concern that the law could affect the wrong people — pedestrians walking home from the grocery store, for example. 

“Police officers are human beings at the end of the day, and they make mistakes, and I can assure you we’ll have incidents where the wrong people get citations,” he said.

City Attorney Sonia Carvalho said her office would add another layer of oversight by reviewing cases before they’re prosecuted.

“We as prosecutors in the city would not file charges against anyone unless we felt” that the standards of the new law were being met, Carvalho said. 

Hernandez said he worried about the socioeconomic impacts of such a law on those who do choose to violate it. 

“Six months of jail time — that’s a pretty significant amount of time,” he said. “You can effectively break apart a household with six months of incarceration.”

However, others on the council supported harder-line stances, including Council member David Penaloza, who said “I definitely think there should be a fine for anyone spectating. Just a simple warning is not going to be a deterrent.”

Penaloza acknowledged the long-term ways to combat the crisis by narrowing streets and synchronizing traffic lights to make roads less ideal for racing. Council member Phil Bacerra also raised these issues, before the spectator ordinance was even brought before the council. 

But Penaloza added such efforts won’t happen immediately.

“Bristol Street has been under construction since I was a baby, so that tells me these changes aren’t gonna happen overnight. So in the meantime, we do need a deterrent,” he said.

Council member Nelida Mendoza said she would be glad to see one of her children get a citation for supporting or participating in such reckless activities. 

Mayor Sarmiento, who opposed the law, said Santa Ana’s efforts were better focused on things like mobile speed bumps in areas the city knows to be street-racing hotspots. 

“A lot of times when we try to penalize through being heavy-handed, it just doesn’t give us the results we expected,” he said.

Since you've made it this far,

You are obviously connected to your community and value good journalism. As an independent and local nonprofit, our news is accessible to all, regardless of what they can afford. Our newsroom centers on Orange County’s civic and cultural life, not ad-driven clickbait. Our reporters hold powerful interests accountable to protect your quality of life. But it’s not free to produce. It depends on donors like you.

Join the conversation: In lieu of comments, we encourage readers to engage with us across a variety of mediums. Join our Facebook discussion. Message us via our website or staff page. Send us a secure tip. Share your thoughts in a community opinion piece.