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California Street Racing

Vehicle Code 23109

Car enthusiasts often take their passion to the next level by engaging in what is considered as both popular and hazardous activity, street racing. Street racing also known as drag racing or speed contest, exists as early as motor vehicles do; and have recently taken over Hollywood glamour by being the subject matter of the movie franchise, the Fast & Furious. In reality, street racing may not be as glamourous as depicted in movies since it is actually a crime in the State of California. Penalties for participating in a street contest can range from imprisonment in county jail of up to 90 days to 15 years to life in state prison (when it results in death). Let’s take a closer look at the crime.

Street racing, how is it legally defined

Street racing is defined and mainly punished under Vehicle Code 23109. To help us understand, let us first define what a speed contest is as contemplated under the law.

A person is deemed to engage in a speed contest when he or she uses a motor vehicle to race against another vehicle, a clock, or other timing devices. However, a speed contest does not include an event in which the participants measure the time required to cover a set route of more than 20 miles but where the vehicle does not exceed the speed limits.[1]

When is Street Racing a Crime

In order to make you criminally liable for this offense, the prosecutor of your case must prove the following elements beyond reasonable doubt:

1. That you drove a motor vehicle on the highway; and

2. while driving you have willfully engaged in street racing.[2]

Motor vehicle as defined under Vehicle 415 refers to vehicle that is self-propelled. A motor vehicle includes a passenger vehicle, motorcycle, bus/school bus, commercial vehicle, truck tractor; but does not include a self-propelled wheelchair, motorized tricycle, or motorized quadricycle, if operated by a person who, by reason of physical disability, is otherwise unable to move about as a pedestrian.[3]

Note that the act must be done willfully i.e. when he or she does it willingly or on purpose. It is not required that he or she intend to break the law, hurt someone else, or gain any advantage.[4]

Moreover, street racing is only a crime when done in “Highways”. More specifically, a “highway” is a way or place of whatever nature, publicly maintained and open to the use of the public for purposes of vehicular travel. Highway includes street.[5]

Acts Punishable under VC 23109

Driving in a speed contest under the circumstances described above is not the only act made punishable under this law. Other acts considered as a crime under Vehicle Code 23109 are as follows:

  1. Aiding and abetting in speed contests
  2. Engaging in motor vehicle exhibition, or aiding and abetting thereto, and
  3. obstruct or place a barricade or obstruction or assist or participate in placing a barricade or obstruction upon any highway for the purpose of aiding or abetting speed contest or motor vehicle exhibition.

Penalties for Violation of Penal Code 23109

Penalties imposed for a conviction for violation of VC 23109 shall be determined by a number of factors. Penalties include imprisonment, fine; and even suspension or restriction of your privilege to operate a motor vehicle.

Penalties in general. If a person is convicted under VC 23109 for driving a motor vehicle on a highway while willfully engaging in a speed contest, he shall be punished by

  1. imprisonment in a county jail for not less than 24 hours nor more than 90 days; or
  2. by a fine of not less than three hundred fifty-five dollars ($355) nor more than one thousand dollars ($1,000), or by both that fine and imprisonment;
  3. Community service of 40 hours of community service;
  4. The court may order the privilege to operate a motor vehicle suspended for 90 days to six months.[6]

Penalties if violation is proximate cause of bodily injuries. If bodily injuries are caused in the course of performing the criminal act, higher penalties will be imposed. Imprisonment shall be increased to not less than 30 days nor more than six months or by a fine is increased to less than five hundred dollars ($500) nor more than one thousand dollars ($1,000), or by both that fine and imprisonment.[7]

Penalties if there is same prior violation with five years. If you have been convicted for the same offense prior to your arrest, penalties imposed shall also be increased. In such cases, you may be punished by imprisonment in a county jail for not less than four days nor more than six months, and by a fine of not less than five hundred dollars ($500) nor more than one thousand dollars ($1,000).[8]

Penalties if there is prior violation and that bodily injury is caused. In cases when the offender has had prior conviction for the same code within five-years and that bodily injuries are caused in the course of performing the criminal act; penalties will be substantially enhanced. Imprisonment will now be either in state prison, or in a county jail for not less than 30 days nor more than one year, and by a fine of not less than five hundred dollars ($500) nor more than one thousand dollars ($1,000).[9]

Penalties for other acts. As already discussed above, participation in speed racing other than driving the vehicle are also punishable under this section. Aiding/abetting, motor exhibition and placing barricade or obstruction to facilitate the speed contest shall upon conviction of that violation be punished by imprisonment in a county jail for not more than 90 days, by a fine of not more than five hundred dollars ($500), or by both that fine and imprisonment.[10]

Other Charges

In addition to Vehicle Code 23109, other related crimes can also be charged as a result of engaging in a speed contest. These related crimes are as follows:

1. Reckless Driving under VC 2313, and

2. Watsons Murder under Penal Code 187

1. Reckless Driving under VC 2313

Vehicle Code 2313 on reckless driving can also be charged by the prosecutors for engaging in a speed contest. This, however, is only possible if the driving of a vehicle upon a highway was done in willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property.

Under California law, a person is deemed to have acted with willful or wanton disregard for safety of person or property within the meaning of the law when (1) he or she is aware that his or her actions present a substantial and unjustifiable risk of harm, and (2) he or she intentionally ignores that risk. The person does not, however, have to intend to cause damage.[11]

With this definition, the courts have already ruled, as in the case of People v. Nowell (1941) 45 Cal.App.2d Supp. 811, that participating in speeding can be considered as an act of reckless driving. Thus, chargeable under this section.

Reckless driving is usually charged as a misdemeanor and is punishable by 90 days in jail, a fine of at least $145.00, and 2 points on the person’s driver’s license.

However, when reckless driving results in a minor injury to a person, the penalty for misdemeanor increases to imprisonment in county jail of up to one year and a fine of $1,000.[12]

Lastly, it may be charged as either felony or misdemeanor (therefore a wobbler offense) when the reckless driving results in a serious injury to a person other than the driver. Felony conviction under this section can place you in jail for up to three years and/or fine of up to $10,000.[13]

2. Watson murder, or Second-degree DUI murder

Speed racing inevitably comes with it the risk of causing someone to die. It could be the driver or a bystander speculating for what was once thought to be a fun-filled experience. In the unfortunate event of someone dying as a result of a fatal car crash, serious criminal consequences await the reckless driver.

Often, these fatal car crashes happen when the driver is under the influence of drugs and alcohol. This is when “Watson Murder” under Penal Code 187 comes into play. Watson’s murder is actually a second-degree murder charge against a driver who has been found to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol when they caused a car crash killing a person. In such cases, the driver is deemed to have acted with implied malice.

It is called “Watson’s Murder” because the name comes from a case decided by the Supreme Court of California entitled People v. Watson (1981) 30 Cal.3d 290.

For one to be found guilty of this offense in relation to speed racing, the prosecution must prove the following elements of the crime beyond reasonable doubt:

  1. He must be racing a vehicle,
  2. He had a prior DUI conviction,
  3. While doing so, he was under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and
  4. He killed someone while driving.

Due to the gravity of the offense and the fact that someone actually died, penalty for conviction under this section shall be imprisonment in State Prison for 15 years to life, fine of $10,000 and a “strike” under California Three Strike law.

With the California Three Strike law under his belt, the offender will now be at the risk of doubling his sentence for any subsequent felony conviction.


Speak with a California street racing attorney today by calling (626) 827-7222!


[1] CALCRIM 2201

[2] Same.

[3] Vehicle Code 415

[4] CALCRIM 2201

[5] Vehicle Code 360

[6] VC 23109(e)(1)

[7] VC 23109(e)(2)

[8] VC 23109(f)(1)

[9] VC 23109(f)(1)

[10] VC 23109(i)(1)

[11] CALCRIM 2200

[12] California Vehicle Code 23104b VC.

[13] Same.

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