ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Watching an illegal street race may soon be a crime in its own right in New Mexico’s largest city.
The Albuquerque City Council on Monday approved an update to the traffic code that would allow police to cite those watching prohibited street races or even spectators “at a location where preparations are being made” for such events.
The bill passed 6-3, with supporting councilors calling it a new way for police to temper – if not eliminate – potentially dangerous high-speed activity. Opponents argued that Albuquerque’s police do not have the manpower to ticket people for standing around.
Sponsor Brad Winter said he was uncertain how much impact the law could have. But he said he has witnessed racing activity near Balloon Fiesta Park that shocked him, describing hundreds gathered in a scene that he likened to “The Fast and the Furious” film franchise.
He said the experience compelled him to pursue this legislation and that other cities in the U.S. have experienced some positive results with similar laws.
“This is not a cure-all, for sure,” Winter said. “In fact, will it make a dent? I’m not sure if it will. But at least it will give (police) another tool.”
The bill now heads to Mayor Tim Keller. A spokeswoman said he supports it. The law would likely take effect some time this summer.
Albuquerque Police Department commanders spoke in favor of the bill during Monday’s meeting, saying they do not chase the racers themselves since it is a safety hazard. This allows them to tackle the issue in a new manner.
Racing is “definitely a serious public safety concern” said Cmdr. Zach Wesley from the Valley Area.
When it comes to illegal drag racing, spectators are a part of the bigger problem, Councilor Don Harris said prior to voting for the bill.
“It’s not just merely standing around doing something innocent; you’re encouraging someone to do something which is definitely dangerous,” he said. “It’s not morally neutral behavior.”
As part of the traffic code, a violation would be a petty misdemeanor punishable by up to a $500 fine or 90 days in jail, according to a Council attorney.
Prior to voting against the legislation, Councilors Ken Sanchez and Cynthia Borrego both expressed concern that APD did not have enough personnel to enforce such a law given current staffing levels. Borrego also said she thought it could sow division.
“It creates an ‘us versus them’ situation with our youth and that concerns me greatly,” she said.
Klarissa Peña also voted against the bill.
But councilors who voted for it said they were ready to try something to curb the problem, one several said they see in their own districts.
“It’s beyond a quality of life issue; it’s an issue of rampant lawlessness and that breeds something worse,” Councilor Isaac Benton said.
One critic during public comment said it would be “insane” to ticket someone as a racing spectator just because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
But Councilor Diane Gibson said she was confident that is not the intent.
“I don’t think it’s going to be some guy walking by just willy-nilly that (police will) be interested in,” she said. “Obviously, (it’s) the people who are out there almost as if it’s a picnic to watch this.”