In California, it is illegal to participate in any street racing, drag racing, or speed contest on a public street, road, or highway, including acceleration contests, speed exhibitions, or any other form of street racing.
In most cases, these types of crimes are prosecuted under Vehicle Code 23109 VC speed contest law and Vehicle Code 23103 VC reckless driving, both misdemeanor offenses that carry fines, probation, and some county jail time.
If someone is killed due to street racing while the driver was under the influence, they could face Penal Code 187 Watson murder charges.
If the prosecutor decides to charge a street racing offense under Vehicle Code 23109 VC, called a speed contest, they have to prove (elements of the crime) that you drove a motor vehicle on a public street or highway and engaged in a speed contest while doing so. This law DOES NOT apply to private property.
So, what exactly is a speed contest? It's defined as racing one vehicle against another, but it also includes a car race against the clock with a timing device. In the context of this law, a motor vehicle consists of a standard passenger car, motorcycles, truck tractors, commercial vehicles, and even buses.
A speed contest may earn you not only a citation and a driver's license suspension but also a misdemeanor on your criminal record with fines and up to 90 days in jail.
Repeat offenses may result in steeper penalties, and if anyone is injured in the process of racing, you could even be facing felony charges. Our Los Angeles criminal defense attorneys will examine this topic in more detail below.
What Is a Speed Contest Under Vehicle Code 23109 VC?
As noted above, the California laws against street racing include Vehicle Code 23109 VC, which makes it illegal to willfully "engage in a motor vehicle speed contest on a highway." A speed contest is "a motor vehicle race against another vehicle, a clock, or other timing device."
For all intents and purposes, a "highway" in California refers to any publicly maintained roadway. Under VC 23109, the following actions are NOT considered illegal speed contests:
- Races that occur on private property (e.g., privately maintained drives),
- Races involving non-motorized vehicles (e.g., bicycles),
- "Races" in which the route exceeds 20 miles AND the speed limit is not breached
To best illustrate what is and is not considered illegal street racing, let's look at a few examples below.
Example 1: Tim and Don are driving to a party in separate vehicles, and they spontaneously decide to compete to see who can get there first. This results in both cars speeding and weaving through traffic on a freeway. Tim and Don are guilty of engaging in a speed contest because they were racing each other on the highway.
Example 2: Alex is a professional race car driver hired to give exhibition drives at a local car show. Alex will be driving a high-performance vehicle on an unused airstrip—not on a public road. Therefore, what Alex is doing is not illegal under VC 23109.
Example 3: John is driving on a winding mountain road and notices another driver behind him who appears to be tailgating. John speeds up to try to lose the other driver.
In this case, John is NOT guilty of street racing because he was not racing against another vehicle but instead was trying to create space between his car and the one behind him. However, depending on the situation, John could be cited for other moving violations, including speeding or reckless driving.
What is Reckless Driving Under Vehicle Code 23103 VC?
Another law making street racing a crime is reckless driving under California vehicle Code 23103 VC, which says someone drives recklessly if they drive a vehicle with a “wanton disregard” for the safety of people or property. Someone drives a car with a wanton disregard for safety when they do the following:
- They are aware their actions present a substantial risk of harm, and
- They intentionally ignore that risk anyway.
Readers should note that the courts can consider excessive speeding reckless based on the circumstances of the incident.
As noted above, if someone is killed due to street racing while under the influence, they can be charged with second-degree murder under Penal Code 187 PC, known as a “Watson murder” from the California Supreme Court case People v. Watson.
What Are the Penalties for Street Racing in California?
Participating in a speed contest is a misdemeanor offense in California. A first-time violation can result in any or all of the following penalties if you are convicted:
- A jail sentence between 24 hours and 90 days;
- Summary probation;
- Community service;
- Fines between $355 and $1000; and
- Having your license restricted or suspended for 3-6 months.
Enhanced penalties apply if this is not your first street racing offense or someone was injured in the process.
- For prior street racing convictions within the past five years: you face a mandatory 6-month license suspension and up to 6 months in jail;
- If someone suffers injury: your jail sentence may be increased to a maximum of 6 months;
- If someone suffers severe bodily injury: the offense becomes a "wobbler," which means it may be charged either as a misdemeanor or a felony. For the former, you could face up to one year in county jail; for the latter, you could face up to 3 years in prison and up to $10,000 in fines.
What Are the Common Legal Defenses?
While California law regarding speed contests is pretty straightforward, there are a few defenses that an experienced criminal defense attorney could raise on your behalf if you have been accused of street racing.
If successful, these could result in the charges being dropped or penalties being reduced. Common defenses are discussed below.
Perhaps we can argue that your actions were not "willful." Prosecutors must prove that you willfully raced a motor vehicle against another vehicle against the clock.
Perhaps you were a passenger in one of the vehicles and were not a willing participant in the race—or maybe you were speeding, but you were unaware of the speeding vehicle next to you and were not competing with them. In such cases, you should not be convicted of illegal speed contests.
Perhaps your actions didn't meet the criteria of a "speed contest."For example, your race took place on private property with the owner's permission.
Perhaps we can argue that You were under duress. For example, you were being chased in a road rage incident by someone you believed wanted to harm you. The criminal defense law firm of Eisner Gorin LLP is in Los Angeles, California. You can contact our office for an initial case consultation by phone or fill out the information on the contact form.