California Street Racing Laws

California street racing law makes it illegal to engage in drag racing or speed contests on public roads, streets and highways. These offenses are punished under Vehicle Code 23109 VC (speed contests) and Vehicle Code 23103 VC (reckless driving)

A crime involving unlawful street racing can be charged as either:

Penalties may include:

  • significant time in county jail or state prison, and/or
  • substantial fines.

Our California criminal defense attorneys will highlight the following in this article:

car speeding through traffic as a example of street racing in California.
Street racing and drag racing are crimes in California.

1. Is street racing illegal in California?

Street racing is a crime in California.

The offense is often charged under Vehicle Code 23109 VC. A prosecutor must prove the following to convict a defendant under this statute:

  1. the accused drove a motor vehicle on a highway, and
  2. while doing so, he willfully engaged in a speed contest.1

A “speed contest” is defined as a race of a vehicle against another car. It also includes a race against a clock or other timing device.2

2. What crimes can be charged for street racing?

As stated above, street racing can be charged under VC 23109.

Depending on the facts of a case, it can also be charged under:

  1. Vehicle Code 23103 VC, reckless driving, and
  2. Penal Code 187, Watson murder.

2.1. Vehicle Code 23109 VC

As stated above, a prosecutor must prove the following to convict a defendant under this statute:

  1. the accused drove a motor vehicle on a highway, and
  2. while doing so, he willfully engaged in a speed contest

For purposes of this statute, “motor vehicles” include:

  • passenger vehicles (such as a car or pickup truck),
  • motorcycles,
  • buses,
  • commercial vehicles, and
  • truck tractors.3

Note that this statute applies to races on “highways.” While this term includes most public streets, it does not apply to private property. This means people can engage in a car race if it is on property that is privately owned and not open to the public.

Example: Charlotte is an avid motorcyclist whose husband owns a car dealership. Because of recent changes in his business, her husband currently has a large part of his vehicle storage lot sitting empty.

Charlotte and several biker friends use her husband's empty lot to race their motorcycles on a short course.

Charlotte and her friends cannot be charged under California's speed contest law because her husband's lot does not count as a “highway.”

2.2. Vehicle Code 23103 VC

The facts of a case may lead a prosecutor to charge street racing as reckless driving, per VC 23103.

This statute says that a person drives recklessly if:

  1. he drives a vehicle, and
  2. he does so with a “wanton disregard” for the safety of people or property.4

Under California law, a person acts with a wanton disregard for safety when:

  1. he is aware that his actions present a substantial risk of harm, and
  2. he intentionally ignores that risk.5

Note that one California court has specifically ruled that speeding may constitute recklessness based on the circumstances.6

2.3. Penal Code 187 PC, Watson murder

Watson murder" is a form of California Penal Code 187, second-degree murder. It can be charged when someone:

  1. kills someone while driving under the influence, and
  2. was driving with a prior DUI conviction.7

With regards to speed racing, this crime can be charged if:

  1. the defendant was racing a vehicle,
  2. he had a DUI conviction on his record,
  3. he was driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and
  4. the accused killed someone while driving.

Watson murder” takes its name from a 1981 California Supreme Court case. The case is called People v. Watson.8

money under a gavel
Violations of the crimes can result in fines and/or jail time.

3. What are the potential penalties?

The penalties for street racing will depend on whether a prosecutor charges a defendant with:

  • partaking in a speed contest (per VC 23109),
  • reckless driving, (per VC 23103), or
  • Watson murder (per PC 187).

3.1. Penalties for a speed contest

Engaging in a speed contest is a misdemeanor under California law.9

A first-time conviction is punishable by:

  • custody in county jail for up to 90 days, and/or
  • a maximum fine of $1,000.10

If a person commits this crime with a prior conviction, the penalties may include:

  • imprisonment in county jail for up to six months,
  • a maximum fine of $1,000, and
  • a mandatory driver's license suspension for six months.11

3.2. Penalties for reckless driving

A violation of VC 23103 is charged as a misdemeanor. The offense is punishable by:

  • up to 90 days in county jail, and/or
  • a maximum fine of $1,000.12

If reckless driving causes a minor injury to someone, the crime is still a misdemeanor. But the penalties increase to:

  • up to one year in jail, and/or
  • a fine of up to $1,000.13

Reckless driving is a wobbler offense if someone other than the driver is seriously injured. A “wobbler” is charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony.

When charged as a felony, the crime is punishable by:

  • up to three years in jail, and/or
  • a fine of up to $10,000.14

3.3. Penalties for Watson Murder

Watson murder, or second-degree DUI murder, can be punished by:

A “strike” may result in a doubled sentence for any subsequent felony offense committed by the defendant.16

For additional help...

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Call us for help at (855) LAW-FIRM

For additional guidance or to discuss your case with a criminal defense attorney, we invite you to contact us at Shouse Law Group.

For similar laws in Nevada, see our article on: “Drag Racing and Unauthorized Speed Contests in Nevada Law.”


Legal References:

  1. California Vehicle Code 23109 VC.

  2. See same. See also Tischoff v. Wolfchief (1971) 16 Cal.App.3d 703.

  3. CALCRIM 2201 – Speed Contest.

  4. California Vehicle Code 23103 VC.

  5. CALCRIM 2200 – Reckless Driving. See also People v. Schumacher (1961) 194 Cal.App.2d 335.

  6. People v. Nowell (1941) 45 Cal.App.2d Supp. 811.

  7. CALCRIM 520 – First- or Second-Degree Murder with Malice Aforethought.

  8. People v. Watson (1981) 30 Cal.3d 290.

  9. California Vehicle Code 23109 VC.

  10. See same.

  11. See same.

  12. California Vehicle Code 23103c VC.

  13. California Vehicle Code 23104a VC.

  14. California Vehicle Code 23104b VC.

  15. California Penal Code 667.5 PC.

  16. California Penal Code 667 PC.

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