Unlawful Racing of Motor Vehicles

When I think of unlawful racing, scenes from old movies come to mind. I see guys (more specifically, James Dean and John Travolta) in white t-shirts and leather jackets behind the wheels of vintage Fords and Mercurys. Unfortunately, however, unlawful racing has not been relegated to the past. There were nearly 500 charges for unlawful speed competition in North Carolina last year, a misdemeanor offense that can result in the revocation of a person’s driver’s license as well as the seizure of the motor vehicle driven—not to mention serious injury or death.

North Carolina law prohibits two types of racing: prearranged speed competitions and willful speed competitions.

Prearranged speed competitions

Not surprisingly, the driver in a prearranged race may be criminally prosecuted. G.S. 20-141.3(a) provides that a person who operates a motor vehicle on a street or highway willfully in a pre-arranged speed competition with another motor vehicle is guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor.

The owner of the motor vehicle driven also may be prosecuted. G.S. 20-141.3(c) provides that a person who authorizes or knowingly permits a motor vehicle he or she owns or controls to be operated on a street or highway in prearranged speed competition with another motor vehicle commits a Class 1 misdemeanor.

Those who bet on prearranged racing may be prosecuted. Finally, G.S. 20-141.3(c) states that a person who places or receives any bet, wager, or other thing of value from the outcome of a prearranged speed competition on a street or highway commits a Class I misdemeanor.

License revocation. North Carolina’s Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV) must revoke the driver’s license of a person convicted of violating G.S. 20-141.3(a) or (c) for three years. G.S. 20-141.3(d). The person may, however, apply for a new license after 18 months, which DMV may issue “upon satisfactory proof that the former licensee has been of good behavior for the past 18 months.” Id. In the event of early license restoration, DMV may impose special terms and conditions for the balance of the three-year revocation period.

Vehicle seizure. When a driver is charged with prearranged racing in violation of G.S. 20-141.3(a), the law enforcement officer must seize the motor vehicle involved and deliver it to the sheriff. G.S. 20-141.3(g). The sheriff must hold the vehicle pending the driver’s trial.

Temporary return to owner. The sheriff may return the vehicle to its owner if the owner executes a bond in double the value of the motor vehicle approved by the sheriff. The owner must agree to return the motor vehicle to the sheriff on the day of the driver’s trial.

Permanent return to owner. If the driver is acquitted, the sheriff must return the motor vehicle to its owner. In addition, if the owner can establish that he or she did not consent to or know about the use of the motor vehicle in the prearranged speed competition then the court must order the motor vehicle returned to the owner. The owner is, upon request, entitled to a jury trial on this issue.

Return to lienholder. The court also may allow a lienholder to reclaim a motor vehicle seized for prearranged racing. The lienholder must file with the court an accounting of the proceeds of any subsequent sale of the vehicle and must pay to the county proceeds received in excess of the lien amount.

Sale. If the driver is convicted—and the motor vehicle has not been reclaimed by a lienholder or owner—the court must order the vehicle’s sale at auction. If the motor vehicle has been specially equipped or modified to increase its speed, the court must order that the special equipment or modification be removed and destroyed. If the equipment and modifications are so extensive that removal is impractical, the vehicle must be turned over to a governmental agency or public official for use in the performance of official duties.

Willful speed competitions

Prosecutions for willful racing far outnumber those for prearranged racing. In 2015, there were 422 charges for willful speed competitions and only 54 charges for prearranged speed competitions.

Only the driver may be prosecuted for this type of racing. A person who operates a motor vehicle on a street or highway willfully in speed competition with another motor vehicle commits a Class 2 misdemeanor. G.S. 20-141.3(b). To prove willfulness for purposes of a prosecution for a willful speed competition or a prearranged speed competition, the State must establish that the defendant purposely and deliberately engaged in a race with the other motor vehicle. Cf. Hord v. Atkinson, 68 N.C. App. 346, 350 (1984) (concluding that the driver’s statement that the car following them could not outrun his car did not establish his intent to willfully engage in a speed competition).

Discretionary license revocation. DMV may suspend the driver’s license of a person convicted of willful racing in violation of G.S. 20-141.3(b) for up to one year. G.S. 20-141.3(e).

No seizure. No statute authorizes the seizure of a motor vehicle solely on the grounds that it was used in willful racing in violation of G.S. 20-141.3(b).

What if someone is killed or seriously injured?

When a defendant’s unlawful speed competition proximately causes the death of another, the defendant may be prosecuted for involuntary manslaughter, or, in some circumstances, second degree murder. See State v. Brown, 182 N.C. App. 115, 116, 121 (2007) (upholding conviction for second degree murder arising from death caused in part by defendant’s willful speed competition); State v. Sawyer, 11 N.C. App. 81, 85 (1971) (finding sufficient evidence from which jury could conclude that defendant committed involuntary manslaughter by engaging in a willful speed competition and speeding which proximately caused the death of another). When unlawful racing proximately causes serious injury to another, the driver may be charged with assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury. See Brown, 182 N.C. App. at 116, 121 (also upholding conviction for assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury).

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