The city of Santa Rosa is unveiling a new sideshow ordinance in an effort to curtail the reckless driving activity undertaken by youth in many Bay Area cities.

The ordinance was first introduced at Tuesday’s City Council meeting and allows law enforcement to arrest or cite participants, vehicle passengers, organizers and spectators that take part in the unauthorized street “shows.”

The organized vehicular melees are indeed dangerous and disruptive, which is perhaps why they seem to hold a fascination for participants. City blocks can be held hostage while dozens of cars do doughnuts, burnouts and “drifting,” which is when a driver intentionally creates a controlled skid.

Police complain that they must spend time and manpower confronting sideshows when they could be patrolling elsewhere or responding to other calls. If police manage to break up a sideshow, the participants often head out for another intersection and start all over.

In short, sideshows are loud, smelly, disruptive and dangerous, and just about everywhere that an ordinance against them has been passed has been met with cheers by residents.

Punishing the spectators

The ordinance is similar to one passed in Vallejo in September of last year after the police chief there referred to sideshows as “terrorism.” Both ordinances have a somewhat unique approach of penalizing anyone who merely stands on a public street and watches the activity, the constitutionality of which San Jose legal analyst and former Santa Clara County prosecutor Steven Clark questions.

“It’s a legitimate public safety concern to go after participants in sideshows,” said Clark last year. “It’s a dangerous activity and tremendously unsafe. But at the same time, you have to reconcile that there’s a difference between criminal participation and merely standing around.”

Vallejo City Attorney Veronica Nebb likened the illegality of observing sideshows to being an observer at illegal activity such as dog or cock fighting. However, both of those illegal activities generally take place on private property, not a city street.

Officials in Santa Rosa say that sideshows have been increasing over the last few years and can take place several times per month. Enough, as they say, is enough.

“Hundreds of participants and spectators at these dangerous sideshows converge on various public streets and off-street parking lots in both commercial and residential neighborhoods,” said the city.

Both the city and Police Chief John Cregan said they hope the ordinance will prevent sideshow activity if participants think they will face penalties.

“This ordinance is the new tool our city needs to deter dangerous and illegal sideshow behavior,” Cregan said in a statement.

What about the Constitution?

Clark questions how far any citations for watching a sideshow could get in court, noting that there are specific jury instructions, for example, that say that mere presence at a crime scene is not enough for a criminal conviction.

“If I watch two people fight on a public street, that’s not a crime,” said Clark. “I don’t have to intervene. I can just stand there and watch if I’m on public property.”

Other California cities have gone as far as to make posting about sideshows on social media an illegal activity, which also raises First Amendment questions. Last year, San Jose passed a law making it illegal to post about a sideshow; doing so could get you a $1,000 fine or up to six months in jail.

“Illegal sideshows will not be tolerated,” Cregan said. “With the assistance of our community and our local law enforcement partners, we will continue to keep our community safe.”

Katy St. Clair got her start in journalism by working in the classifieds department at the East Bay Express during the height of alt weeklies, then sweet talked her way into becoming staff writer, submissions editor, and music editor. She has been a columnist in the East Bay Express, SF Weekly, and the San Francisco Examiner. Starting in 2015, she begrudgingly scaled the inverted pyramid at dailies such as the Vallejo Times-Herald, The Vacaville Reporter, and the Daily Republic. She has her own independent news site and blog that covers the delightfully dysfunctional town of Vallejo, California, where she also collaborates with the investigative team at Open Vallejo. A passionate advocate for people with developmental disabilities, she serves on both the Board of the Arc of Solano and the Arc of California. She lives in Vallejo.