The Atlanta City Council is urging state lawmakers to legalize the seizure or forfeiture of vehicles used in street racing. The councilmembers are essentially asking the General Assembly to legalize an ordinance they passed earlier this year despite knowing a car-impounding provision was unlawful and unenforceable.
In a resolution approved Nov. 16, the council asks lawmakers to empower city governments to temporarily seize vehicles of accused street-racers, and to legalize permanent forfeiture of vehicles in cases where the driver has a prior conviction “for certain serious offenses such as reckless driving.”
Street racing and stunt driving have plagued cities around the metro region this year, with high-speed driving on streets and highways and loud noise that awakens neighbors. Street racing is a key motivation of new talk of a private security patrol in Buckhead.
In August, the council passed a new ordinance intended to crack down on “non-driver participants” who help to organize street races. But the ordinance has been confusing and problematic, as provisions about arresting spectators and impounding cars ended up defanged in the final product.
Enforceable new provisions of the law include requiring the maximum fine allowed under state law — $1,000 — and applying the law not only to drivers but to others actively involved in organizing or operating the races. A provision to also outlaw the watching of a race was deleted amid civil liberties concerns, but was widely misreported by major media as a key part of the law.
Another provision in the ordinance calls for impounding an accused street-racer’s vehicle for 30 days or until a court rules on the case. But during the meeting where the ordinance passed, city attorneys said that such a seizure of property exceeds the limits allowed to cities under Georgia law. Councilmembers wanted to keep the threat of seizure to intimidate racers, so they left it in place, but added fine-print language that the impounding period can be up to the maximum allowed under state law. According to city attorneys, the period allowed by state law is in fact always less than 30 days and cannot legally continue through the court process. Currently, vehicles can be immediately taken home by any legally authorized driver.
City officials appear to have let misunderstandings about the impounding continue so that the law sounds much tougher than it is. Councilmembers, police officials and city solicitors have continued to incorrectly describe it in public. However, Council President Felicia Moore also has said she is working with state legislators to change the state law.