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What to know about Tampa Bay street racing after child killed at race, dad arrested

Street takeovers have long been an issue locally, but law enforcement said they’ve seen an increase in interest recently.
 
In this 2009 photo, drivers and passengers wait for their turn to receive a citation for watching illegal drag racing on Fourth Street North in St. Petersburg. Police say street racing is an increasing problem. A boy was recently killed during a street racing event and his father was arrested on a child neglect charge.
In this 2009 photo, drivers and passengers wait for their turn to receive a citation for watching illegal drag racing on Fourth Street North in St. Petersburg. Police say street racing is an increasing problem. A boy was recently killed during a street racing event and his father was arrested on a child neglect charge. [ Times (2009) ]
Published Feb. 10, 2023|Updated Feb. 10, 2023

In late January, a man took his 13-year-old son to a street racing event in St. Petersburg, where police said the boy was hit and killed by a motorcyclist who was speeding at more than 100 mph.

On Wednesday, police arrested the father, Johnny Julio Martin, 35, of Tampa, on a child neglect charge. Martin also was cited for being a spectator at a street race.

St. Petersburg police say the case remains under investigation and more charges are possible against other people, though they declined to elaborate.

Though street racing isn’t unique to Tampa Bay, it has been going on locally for years and Tampa Bay’s racing culture has achieved some national attention. Though racers are known for posting races and stunts on social media, the events are usually held in the overnight hours and participants do their best to keep them secret from law enforcement.

However, both state lawmakers and law enforcement officials have pledged to crack down on the practice.

Here’s what to know about street racing and the laws surrounding it:

How does state law define street racing and what are the penalties for participating and spectating?

Florida state law forbids people from racing in their cars and competing to show their vehicles’ endurance and speed outside of “licensed or duly authorized racetracks, drag strips, or other designated areas set aside by proper authorities for such purposes.”

Advertising street racing events, riding as a passenger, providing fuel for street races, filming them in a car and impeding traffic for the races are also forbidden.

These offense are all first-degree misdemeanors, which come with a fine between $500 and $1,000, plus a yearlong driver’s license suspension and the possibility of up to a year in jail.

For a second offense within five years, the fine increases to between $1,000 and $3,000, plus a two-year driver’s license suspension. A third offense within that time period carries a minimum fine of $2,000, or up to $5,000, and a four-year driver’s license suspension.

Additionally, police can impound vehicles used for street racing for 30 days after a first offense, and take permanent possession of them after a second offense within five years of a prior conviction.

Street racing spectators can receive traffic citations, which come with a $65 fine.

Where are the hot spots for street racing in Tampa Bay?

Street racers tend to move locations to avoid detection, said Marco Villarreal, a spokesperson for the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, which conducted a street racing operation last weekend, making more than 150 traffic stops and arresting nine people.

In St. Petersburg, however, police have identified a few key locations: Gandy Boulevard, Fourth Street North and 28th Street North, where the teen was killed last month.

Is street racing on the rise?

While street racing has long been an issue in Tampa Bay, officials said they have seen more incidents recently.

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“It’s something that’s definitely becoming more prevalent in Pinellas and Hillsborough,” said Sgt. Michael Schade with the St. Petersburg Police Department’s traffic unit.

Villarreal said last weekend’s operation was prompted by an uptick in complaints about street racing, though he said it’s hard to say what’s behind the increased interest.

“Racing has always been a problem, ever since the car was invented,” Villarreal said. “But we started seeing a little bit more of that in Hillsborough County.”

Who is attending street racing events?

In Hillsborough, authorities are seeing people from all ages and walks of life, Villarreal said. Some people are even traveling from outside of the county to attend street events, he said.

In St. Petersburg, however, officials are seeing a more concentrated demographic involved.

“For whatever reason, it’s something that’s of interest to young adults in the area,” Schade said.

Can parents be arrested for bringing a kid to a street race?

Schade said police arrested Martin on a child neglect charge because he knowingly brought the teen to an illegal event, and as a result, his son died. Schade drew a comparison to a 2021 arrest, when police arrested a woman because she didn’t ensure that children were properly restrained in a car. When it crashed, two of the kids were killed.

“When we do this type of an arrest of a parent who just lost a child, it’s something that we take very seriously and we make sure that when we do it, there’s a very justified reason for the charge,” Schade said.