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What Are California’s Street Racing Laws?

Posted by Sam Israels | Feb 25, 2023

Participating in any street racing, drag racing, or speed contest on a public street, road, or highway in California is illegal. This includes speed exhibitions or any street racing.

These criminal offenses are typically prosecuted under Vehicle Code 23109 VC speed contest law and Vehicle Code 23103 VC reckless driving. Both misdemeanors carry hefty fines, probation, and even county jail time.

Street Racing Laws in California

For example, suppose somebody was killed during street racing while the driver was under the influence (DUI). In that case, they could be charged with Penal Code 187 Watson second-degree murder, based on the California Supreme Court Case, People v. Watson.

Suppose you are prosecuted for a speed contest offense under Vehicle Code 23109 VC. In that case, all the criminal elements will have to be proven. This includes that you drove a motor vehicle on a public street or highway while engaging in a speed contest. This statute does not apply to private property.

A speed contest is defined as racing one vehicle against another or racing against the clock with a timing device. A motor vehicle, in the context of this law, includes the following:

  • standard passenger cars,
  • motorcycles,
  • truck tractors,
  • commercial vehicles, and
  • buses.

If someone is injured during street racing, the penalties are more severe and could even result in felony charges. Let's review this state law further below.

What Does the Law Say?

California laws against street racing include Vehicle Code 23109 VC, speed contest law, which says, “(a) A person shall not engage in a motor vehicle speed contest on a highway or in an off-street parking facility. As used in this section, a motor vehicle speed contest includes a motor vehicle race against another vehicle, a clock, or other timing devices.”

A "highway" refers to any publicly maintained roadway. Under VC 23109, the following actions are not illegal speed contests:

  • Races occurring on private property;
  • Races involving non-motorized vehicles;
  • Races in which the route exceeds 20 miles and the speed limit is not violated.

As noted, another law that makes street racing a crime is reckless driving under California Vehicle Code 23103 VC, which describes a situation where someone drives a vehicle recklessly with a “wanton disregard” for the safety of people or property.

Simply put, a car driver was aware that their actions presented a substantial risk of harm and intentionally ignored it.

VC 23103 says, “(a) A person who drives a vehicle upon a highway in willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property is guilty of reckless driving. (b) A person who drives a vehicle in an off-street parking facility, as defined in subdivision (c) of Section 12500, in willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property is guilty of reckless driving.”

Of note is that the courts can consider excessive speeding recklessly based on the circumstances of the incident.

What Are the Penalties for Street Racing?

A speed contest could result in a citation and a driver's license suspension. Further, a misdemeanor conviction is on your record with fines and up to 90 days in jail. A first-time misdemeanor violation carries the following penalties:

  • A jail sentence of between 24 hours and 90 days;
  • Fines between $355 and $1000;
  • Informal Summary probation;
  • Community service;
  • Driver's license restricted or suspended for 3-6 months.

There are enhanced penalties for multiple violations or if somebody was injured, such as the following:

  • Prior street racing convictions within the past five years carry a mandatory 6-month license suspension and up to 6 months in jail;
  • An injury to someone means your jail sentence could be increased to a maximum of 6 months.
  • If there is a serious bodily injury, the case is a "wobbler," which can be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony. A misdemeanor carries up to one year in county jail, and a felony carries up to 3 years in prison and up to $10,000 in fines.

What Are the Legal Defenses?

An experienced California criminal defense attorney could use several strategies against street racing allegations that could result in the charges being reduced or dismissed. These are discussed below.

Legal Defenses for Street Racing in California

Maybe we can argue that your actions were not "willful." Recall that prosecutors must prove you willfully raced a motor vehicle against another car or the clock.

Perhaps we can argue that you were a passenger and were not a willing participant in the race or that you might have been speeding, but you were not competing with the vehicle next to you.  If successful, you can avoid a conviction for illegal speed contests.

Perhaps we can argue that your actions didn't meet the criteria of a "speed contest."But, on the other hand, maybe you were racing on private property with the owner's permission.

Maybe we can say that you were under duress, such as when someone was chasing you, and you had a reasonable belief that you would be harmed. You can contact our law firm for a free case evaluation via phone or the contact form. Cron, Israels & Stark is based in Los Angeles, California.

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About the Author

Sam Israels

Sam J. Israels is a Law Firm partner with the Law Offices of Cron, Israels, & Stark. Mr. Israels received his J.D. degree from the Santa Clara University School of Law. Mr. Israels also previously worked at the Los Angeles Office of the City Attorney. He is admitted to practice law in the State o...

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