Police Impound Reckless Driver’s Car Based Solely on Video Evidence

Wait a sec, don't cops have to see a traffic violation with their own eyes to do something?

The driver of this car was driving recklessly... and as such will lose their car for 30 days. Photo: CHP
The driver of this car was driving recklessly... and as such will lose their car for 30 days. Photo: CHP

Petaluma Police, in conjunction with the California Highway Patrol, impounded an automobile after someone posted video of the driver doing doughnuts and driving recklessly. Streetsblog first caught wind of the incident from a story in the Petaluma Argus-Courier.

From CHP’s post about the incident on social media:

Last month, a concerned citizen contacted our office with information about sideshow activity and illegal exhibition of speed on a public roadway. A red Nissan 350Z was seen driving recklessly and spinning donuts on Gossage Avenue and Magnolia Avenue in Petaluma, and the incident was posted on social media. The CHP initiated an investigation, and petitioned for a court order to tow the vehicle for 30 days if it was seen on a public highway or off-street parking facility. On October 10, 2020, a Petaluma Police Department Officer located the Nissan on Petaluma Boulevard North and made an enforcement stop on the driver, which resulted in the vehicle being impounded under the authority of the court order. The CHP and our Sonoma County law enforcement partners are dedicated to combating street racing and sideshow activity, and we continue to work cooperatively, leveraging all the tools we can, to ensure that those that engage in such reckless unlawful behavior be brought to justice. Today’s vehicle impoundment was one example of how we are keeping our streets and highways as safe as we can. We appreciate the help of our partners at the Petaluma Police Department, and we are keeping our eyes open for the next sideshow vehicle we can take off the road.

Which brings up an interesting point: if police departments are willing to take such proactive steps, including impounding a car, because of dangerous driving related to sideshows, why do they show so little interest in following up on bike-camera footage of reckless drivers?

“In my experience police departments usually refuse to act on videos, but not always,” explained Andy Gillin, an attorney who specializes in traffic law (and a sponsor of Streetsblog San Francisco). “There is no legal rule keeping them from doing so. As I understand it the practical concern is that they don’t know whether the video is ‘one-sided,’ showing only what the videographer wants the officer to see while leaving out what the videographer doesn’t want the officer to see. In other words, the concern is that what they are seeing is given to them by someone with an agenda rather than an objective observer who is giving them the complete picture.”

But sometimes video shows clearly egregious behavior, as in the Petaluma incident. Streetsblog is unaware of any time when a police department has actually followed up on bike-camera footage, except when someone is seriously injured or killed. This has been a long-standing source of frustrating for bike advocates throughout the Bay Area. Eris Weaver, executive director of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition, told Streetsblog that she has personally “gone to law enforcement with near misses I’ve caught on video, they won’t do anything with it… maybe they take a report but they don’t do much.”

If the police acted on such video, and impounded the cars of reckless drivers–as they did in this incident in Petaluma–they could prevent someone from being seriously injured or killed in the future. The ‘crackdown’ in Petaluma shows that the legal framework exists to make that happen, as Gillin confirmed, but so far law enforcement agencies either don’t have the resources to do it or the interest.

Weaver sees a glimmer of hope, however. “Local law enforcement using video against sideshows could be used as a little bit of ammunition for cyclists to use with the police,” she said. “You’re telling me you can’t go after this person because you didn’t see it, but how is this situation different?”

Streetsblog has reached out to Petaluma PD, California Highway Patrol, and Oakland and San Francisco Police to find out what their policies are. Look for updates to this post if and when they respond. UPDATE: Oct. 15. Streetsblog heard back from an official at the CHP who confirmed that bike-camera footage of reckless driving could also be used to prosecute motorists, even if a collision did not occur.

Of course, if police departments start impounding cars and charging drivers based on bike-camera video, will it invite even more biased/selective enforcement? And what do they do about their own officers caught driving recklessly? Comment below.

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