Georgia’s governor is throwing his support behind efforts to curb street racing and stunt driving, saying heavier penalties are needed to crack down on the illegal activities.

Gov. Brian Kemp on Friday announced his support for House Bill 534, one of several proposals already pending in the General Assembly to combat a problem that Atlanta-area police agencies say had spiked in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic when traffic thinned on roads.

“Our streets and highways and parking lots have become free-for-all speedways for criminals,” Kemp said.

The Kemp-backed proposal, sponsored by Republican Rep. Josh Bonner of Peachtree City, creates new crimes for promoting drag racing and reckless stunt driving, in addition to the current crimes of drag racing or laying drags. The latter is a crime that is applicable when people are not racing on public roadways but driving in donuts or showing off, possibly on private property. Reckless stunt driving would be when someone lays drag “in reckless disregard for the safety of persons on a highway or upon private property.”

Both new crimes would be high and aggravated misdemeanors, a class of misdemeanors that features higher fines and possible jail time.

People who are convicted of stunt driving could lose their driver’s license for at least a year, with penalties rising for second convictions. A third conviction would be a felony and also could lead someone to forfeit their vehicle.

“We will hold those who promote these activities accountable, and keep our streets safe by modernizing our code to include these popular activities that put Georgians in harm’s way,” said Kemp, who said he had met with Fulton County police chiefs at the governor’s mansion to discuss the issue.

Sen. Emanuel Jones, a Decatur Democrat, is already sponsoring another bill to fight street racing. Senate Bill 10 is named for Jaye Mize, a DeKalb County woman who died in a collision with a street racer in Decatur. He attended Kemp’s news conference Friday and said the governor had pledged to work with him. Jones said he hoped to combine the approaches of the two bills.

“Any time a governor gets behind a proposal, it really raises the profile and it also encourages more members in the General Assembly to work with us,” Jones said.

Jones’ bill would raise fines. It also seeks to make street racing more costly for drivers by increasing the number of penalty points that could be assessed against a driver’s license. Any adult 21 or older who gets more than 15 points assessed on their license in two years has it suspended, and Jones’ bill would assess 8 points for one instance of laying drag.

Jones also wants a special license plate for cars that have engines of 650 horsepower or more, aimed at people who buy fast cars for speed racing, allowing that class of cars to be forfeited. Jones, who owns a Ford dealership in McDonough, sells some versions of the Ford Mustang that would need the special plate

“That car, really in my opinion, is not street legal,” Jones said.

Some groups are opposing any bills, though, saying they oppose increased criminal penalties, that forfeiture is too much, and that Jones’ bill could lead to the arrest of innocent bystanders because it makes it a misdemeanor to “knowingly” attend a drag race.

“We believe there is still a constitutional concern with respect to the excessiveness, as well as potentially equal protection,” said Mazie Lynn Causey of the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers in a recent appearance before a Senate committee. Causey said it was unfair to seize cars and single out a particular class of cars.

(Photo: Channel 2 Action News)

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