A new “specialized unit” of the Atlanta Police Department likely will begin cracking down on street racers citywide this weekend, an APD captain told Buckhead’s Neighborhood Planning Unit B on Oct. 6.

But a newly revised street-racing ordinance that APD might use remains widely misunderstood as much harsher than it actually is, making the effects of a crackdown unclear. In the NPU B meeting, City Council President Felicia Moore and a city solicitor referred to a supposed ability of police to impound cars for 30 days that city attorneys said at the time of its passage is almost certainly illegal and unenforceable under Georgia law.

And with city courts still closed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the officials acknowledged, defendants are only getting tickets, not punishment.

It appears that APD’s tactic may involve preventing the street racers from gathering in any one spot for long. The widespread nature of the racing — which extends into the neighboring cities of Brookhaven and Sandy Springs — is part of the problem, said Capt. Anthony Singh of Buckhead’s Zone 2 precinct.

“We have a plan in place for the drag racers,” Singh told NPU B. He said interim Police Chief Rodney Bryant had worked on the plan for a street-racing unit and that it was expected to be ready by Thursday, Oct. 8.

Maj. Andrew Senzer, Zone 2’s commander, said at a September meeting of the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods that APD was working with the Georgia State Patrol on a kind of “centralized street-racing detail” that would include officers from APD’s auto crimes unit and precincts. In May, APD collaborated with GSP and other agencies on a citywide racing crackdown.

Racing and related quality-of-life issues like stunt driving by dozens of loud vehicles in neighborhood parking lots has been on the rise this year, especially as the pandemic reduced regular traffic. Street racing is a key motivation of new talk of a private security patrol in Buckhead.

In response, the City Council in August passed the revised street-racing ordinance, which seems to have confused the public and its own members, as provisions about arresting spectators and impounding cars ended up defanged in the final product. City officials appear to be letting misunderstandings continue so that the law sounds much tougher than it is.

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 is widely misreported by major media as a key part of the law.

Another provision in the law calls for impounding an accused street-racer’s vehicle for 30 days or until a court rules on the case. But city attorneys said during an August council meeting that such a seizure of property exceeds the limits allowed to cities under Georgia law. City Council members wanted to keep that intimidating provision, 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, that period is in fact always less than 30 days and cannot legally continue through the court process.

However, at the Oct. 6 NPU B meeting, city solicitor Hala Carey incorrectly said the ordinance allows street-race cars to be impounded a minimum of 30 days, “so they [city officials] are serious.” Moore also referred to the supposed 30-day impounding and incorrectly claimed the racing ban applies to “those who may view it,” while adding she does not know how APD is applying the law. At the September BCN meeting, Senzer also incorrectly referred to the law as having a mandatory 30-day impounding.

Moore acknowledged the city needs state permission to make tougher penalties and said she is talking to legislators about proposals. “The thing I want to do is, take their car away,” Moore said, also suggesting such ideas as putting points on the licenses of street racers, which could lead to a license suspension.

Moore further claimed that street racing is a “movement” and a “form of protest.” She gave a name of the alleged movement, but an online search found it to refer to an apparently legal, organized car show, a discrepancy that could not immediately be clarified.

“To me, it’s like a protest with vehicles,” Moore said of street racers. “They know they’re making people mad… That’s part of the thrill.”

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John Ruch

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