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Opinion

Editorial: Watch a street race, lose your car? That’s too harsh.

Street racing in Compton

Illegal Street racing activities on Ana Street in Compton on Apr. 13.

(Los Angeles Times)

In an effort to crack down on a dangerous and illegal practice, the Los Angeles City Council has voted to take away and then auction or destroy the cars of drivers caught racing in the streets, if their behavior leads to injury or death. But Councilman Mitchell Englander wants to go further: He wants police to impound spectators’ cars too.

The City Council this week directed the Police Department and the city attorney to find out whether it’s legal to impound peoples’ cars for up to 30 days if they get caught watching a street race. The idea, Englander says, is to create a deterrent that is extreme enough to scare away the audience for these races, which could reduce their popularity and frequency, thus making the streets safer.

But the idea that officers could take peoples’ cars — with no due process — merely for standing on a public street watching others break the law is worrisome. Officers already have the power to arrest or cite spectators on the assumption that they are “aiding and abetting” an illegal street race. But take away their vehicles and force them to incur up to $1,000 in fees just for watching? How would officers determine who is a spectator and who is the unlucky person who stumbled upon a street race? Is it fair to impound someone’s car as punishment for a crime for which they haven’t been charged or convicted?

Los Angeles and other cities have already passed laws allowing officers to impound cars when the drivers are arrested for soliciting prostitution, illegal dumping or participating in street racing. The theory is that the vehicle was instrumental in committing the suspected crime. That’s not really the case for spectators.

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To be sure, street racing can be extraordinarily dangerous to both the participants and the public at large. Englander decided to try and strengthen the law after two men were killed in February when an out-of-control street racer plowed into a crowd of spectators in Chatsworth. But in the search for stronger laws to deter street racing, this proposal is too much.

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