They sideways through empty parking lots at night, spinning in wide circles as tires screech and rubber smokes.
Other cars spin and turn into bloodcurdling donuts and smoke as crowds watch and scream, recording the antics on cell phones, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office said.
After about three months of investigating illegal street racing, the Florida Sheriff’s Office and the Florida Highway Patrol arrested 36 people on various charges and citations totaling 631 misdemeanors and felony charges, Deputy Chief Jaime Eason said.
That’s $92,510 in traffic tickets and 13 vehicles seized, along with drugs and seven weapons, he said. It also means “a drastic reduction in street racing and illegal car rally activities.”
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“There are a lot of car clubs that don’t do illegal activities and they enjoy getting together, looking at cars, talking about it, and that’s fine,” Eason said. “Unfortunately, it’s people like that [pointing to a poster of mugshots] that they have made it an illegal activity and they have made all the car clubs look bad and it is not. We will always protect that right, but once it becomes illegal, we will no longer tolerate it.”
Lon Greenwood, 36-year-old head of Jacksonville’s First Coast Car Council, said the crackdown is good news for legitimate car clubs in the area. He said doing burnouts and street racing is not the kind of thing the more than 30 clubs involved in his motoring council do.
“I’m glad the police have done something to slow it down and set an example for people who aren’t doing things right,” Greenwood said. “…Maybe this will make people think twice when they turn to what I call renegade car clubs that want to do things that destroy property and seem to harm the community.”
After multiple complaints from business owners whose parking lots were filled some nights with shredded rubber and residents who saw street racers passing by, police began looking for places where these vehicles were gathering, Eason said.
It took some time to track down illegal racing scenes because they are “fluid events” that don’t have specific locations where undercover police investigations can work, he said. They had to collect clues, work undercover, and bring in other agencies like the Highway Patrol to come up with a plan “because they’re constantly on the move.”
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When the task force began to investigate, they found patterns that soon led to arrests. Meanwhile, police social media posts reminded drivers that some groups of cars were creating “dangerous situations not only for themselves but also for the citizens around them.”
“They were causing dangerous activity on our roadways and in our neighborhoods and the complaints kept coming in,” Eason said.
Covert deployments led to parking lots and highways where groups of cars and motorcycles were gathering to perform their “nefarious activity,” Eason said. Then came the arrests.
On May 2, police announced the arrest of four people for “actively racing on Southside area roads,” stating in a social media post that they were ticketed and arrested, and had their vehicles towed and impounded.
Then a late deployment on May 7 saw several officers and soldiers witnessing a large gathering reveling in illegal driving in the Roses Discount Store parking lot at 9459 Lem Turner Road.
Eason said they used a police helicopter and drones to get a bird’s-eye view of what was happening before passing drivers and bystanders in the parking lot.
“There were hundreds of people in the parking lot and we saw them; they didn’t realize we were looking at them,” he said. “… We could see that they were doing burnouts and drifts. There were a lot of spectators. A lot of cars doing burnouts had passengers hanging out of the windows, which was obviously very, very dangerous.”
Eason told officers and soldiers to surround the crowd and cars and made 11 arrests, issued more than 200 traffic tickets and impounded 10 vehicles. Those included:
• A 22-year-old man in a Ford Mustang was arrested on highway racing, fleeing police, illegal escape and other charges, according to the arrest report. An officer in an unmarked police vehicle followed the Mustang to a nearby gas station. The officer tried to stop the car, but the driver began to circle the gas station at high speed as people walked through the parking lot.
The suspect continued to circle, “weaving dangerously between bombs, vehicles and other pedestrians,” according to the report. Other officers arrived and blocked the Mustang, and the driver was arrested.
• A 19-year-old woman was charged with reckless driving and carrying a concealed weapon after several vehicles making donuts and burns tried to flee when police arrived, according to her arrest report.
In his Infiniti, he tried to get around a police cruiser blocking an exit, and the officer had to quickly move out of the way to avoid being hit. Another officer blocked the entrance of the Infiniti and the driver and two passengers were placed in handcuffs. That’s when a .22-caliber Glock pistol was found on the woman and her Infiniti was seized, police said.
Those arrests, especially on Lem Turner Road, garnered positive feedback from residents and other auto clubs not involved, as well as tips on where the incidents were taking place, Eason said.
“That caught their attention,” he said of the street racers. “After that, we did several other rollouts, nothing that big.”
Police said street racers are violating numerous state statutes, including driving any vehicle in a race, knowingly riding as a passenger in a race and driving recklessly.
Vehicles owned by people charged with misdemeanors at street racing sites can be impounded for up to 30 days, with daily towing and storage fees costing the owner $1,000 before repossession, Eason said. Those charged with serious crimes, like fleeing from an officer, can permanently lose their vehicles, he said.
All the videos of illegal street racing on social media could sensationalize the activity, but it also became evidence that led to some warrants, Eason said. But he pointed out that even spectators or those who videotape street racing can be cited and fined $164.
“The only reason people were in that lot was because of this,” Eason said of Lem Turner’s arranged meeting. “The circle they were using for drag races and burnouts had an audience completely there, specifically there to see that.”
Eason said he expects a continued decline in street racing as his task force continues to look for trouble. Anyone who sees these types of large gatherings or other dangerous driving patterns can call the Sheriff’s Office at (904) 630-0500 or 911 or email JSOCrimeTips@jaxsheriff.org.
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