A car involved in illegal street racing is impounded by the Atlanta Police Department. (Photos courtesy APD)

A new Atlanta city ordinance widely reported by media and public officials as outlawing all spectators at illegal street races actually does no such thing due to the quiet removal of key language that could have violated the civil liberties of journalists, bystanders and others.
The ordinance — which does not even contain the word “spectator” — may still outlaw certain types of race observers who do more than just watch, such as those who pay an admission fee or even just cheer for a driver. But one prominent civil liberties attorney says the ordinance is so vague and “poorly written” that it would be challenging to apply to spectators and could still lead to unconstitutional arrests of innocent bystanders, reporters and others.
The main effect of the ordinance approved by the City Council Aug. 3, dubbed “Non-Driver Participation in Street Racing and Reckless Driving Exhibitions,” is to reinforce existing state law against street racing by specifically outlawing other participants — such as those riding along or paying to join — and calling for maximum penalties to be enforced. Meanwhile, some officials and residents say, a lack of large-scale police response means the noisy and dangerous late-night racing continues to plague such areas as Old Fourth Ward, Midtown, and Buckhead, where City Councilmember J.P. Matzigkeit recently hired an off-duty officer himself as a gesture of increased enforcement.
The misreporting of the ordinance’s effect on race-watching is based on early publicity for lead sponsor Councilmember Dustin Hillis’s intent to crack down on street racing in part by killing demand by punishing spectators. But key elements of his draft ordinance later were quietly withdrawn, apparently due to concerns they would conflict with state law or the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights — including a provision that would have banned photographing, filming or broadcasting races.
Hillis, who represents Northwest Atlanta’s District 9, was in the news with calls for a tougher street-racing ordinance. He aimed to crack down not only on drivers, but “also to target and penalize individuals who are spectators,” a City Council press release said at the time. He wanted up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine for anyone racing or watching a race.
The press release continued by quoting Hillis: “‘This is kind of a spectator sport, so we what we need to do is go after the organizers who plan these events, because 300 to 500 people don’t just happen to show up in a place without a street race. These are organized on social media and get thousands of likes,’ Hillis said, noting the Atlanta Police Department’s intelligence unit can identify the organizers of the events, take action and hopefully stop the events before they even occur.”
Hillis’s original legislation outlawed not only driving in a street race, but also being a race organizer or being a non-driver participant. In the original version, a participant was defined “any individual who is present at an illegal street racing exhibition for the purpose of taking part in the event, by riding in a race vehicle as driver or passenger; assisting or engaging with the organizers and/or drivers in carrying out the event; photographing, filming, recording, and/or broadcasting the event; or who exchanges money or anything of value with any driver, car owner, or other participant in connection with the event.”
When the ordinance passed, the media incorrectly reported that race-watching by bystanders was now illegal. Matzigkeit made similar claims in his Aug. 7 constituent newsletter, reporting that the council “unanimously passed stiffer penalties for spectators… We need people engaging in illegal drag racing, as a participant or a spectator, to be arrested.”
But the final version of the ordinance says nothing explicit about banning spectators. In fact, its only direct reference to spectators is to exempt from arrest those who are “a mere bystander, passerby or observer not aware of the illegal activity.”
And in the council meeting where it was approved, Susan Garrett, a city attorney heading the Law Department’s public safety division, explained that “this legislation does not allow people to be cited just for being present or watching. They have to actually do something — collect money, ride in the vehicle, or take some other affirmative action to participate in putting on the event. It’s not directed [at] and can’t be used just for a bystander.”
“There are no prohibitions to merely being a spectator, so you read it correctly,” said Hillis in an Aug. 10 email when asked to clarify the meaning of the ordinance.
Hillis did not respond to further questions as to why the ordinance’s language had changed and whether an official clarification would be issued to dispel the confusion and misreporting about spectators. Matzigkeit referred questions about the language to Hillis. Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ press office, the City Council press office and the Atlanta Police Department also did not respond to questions about the ordinance and how it would be enforced.
Early concerns about the civil liberties aspects of the original draft were raised online by Dan Grossman, an attorney known for his role as the lead counsel for plaintiffs who sued the city over the infamous 2009 APD raid of Midtown’s Atlanta Eagle gay bar. Grossman says the final version of the street racing ordinance is better, but is still concerning because it could be read as prohibiting spectators who do know a race is illegal but have every right to view it — including journalists and angry neighbors.
“This is a really, really poorly written statute,” said Grossman. “…There’s this giant hole big enough to drive a truck through, or a prisoner van through, in the middle.”
Grossman said that in practical terms, police officers would find it challenging to determine who in a crowd is a “non-driver participant” or not. The widespread misreporting that all spectators are outlawed could influence officers’ thinking and lead to indiscriminate arrests, he said.
For a deeper dive into this story visit our sister publications, Reporter Newspapers. 

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.