Oakland Hyphy Sideshows Get A Supreme Court Reprieve, Sort Of

Seizure of sideshow cars now a legal liability, Oakland Cops: ‘We have other tools’

Summertime is sideshow season in Oakland. That means cruising car parties with anywhere from a dozen to hundreds of hyphy kids in the street -- dancing, spinning donuts, street racing, and occasionally “ghost riding the whip”.

For the last three years, the city of Oakland has cracked down harder on sideshows in two primary ways: hundreds of thousands of dollars in enforcement grants for extra cops; and new, constitutionally questionable laws threatening participants with tickets, as well as seizure, impound and the potential sale of their vehicle.

Oakland officials say such measures help restore order on Oakland’s streets. Yet the sideshow participants and observers view the measures as dangerous (because hundreds of people and dozens of cars manically flee police enforcement), and largely racist (because hundreds of largely African American, Hispanic and Asian sideshow participants’ vehicles have allegedly been towed and or sold).

Last week, the California State Supreme Court dealt a blow to Oakland’s tactics, saying that flavors of such car seizure ordinances are unconstitutional. The ruling applied to prostitution and drug arrest-related seizures, and did not specifically mention sideshow car seizures, but it opens legal ground for a rollback of the Oakland ordinance and exposes the city to damages. The ruling also follows a $70,000 city payout to a lawyer who sued Oakland over such seizures.

“We’re obviously going to re-work the ordinance,” says Erica Harrold, a representative for Oakland City Attorney John Russo.

According to Officer Roland Holmgren of the Oakland Police Department, the police will not use the city’s car seizure ordinance to take cars involved in sideshows, but they still retain the authority to seize sideshow cars if the cars are seen as evidence.

“It’s definitely a valid tool that we’re lucky to have,” Holmgren says. Police also retain the right to tow vehicles for any arrest. Holmgren also says there’s a difference between seizing and towing.

Seizing means police lock up a vehicle for up to a month and can sell it if the owner can’t afford fees to free the vehicle. Towing means, “if you’re arrested in a drug operation or prostitution operation, we can tow your car on the scene, it’s just released when you are.”

The ACLU says the seizure laws are unconstitutional because they punish defendants without due process, and they’ve backed Mark Clausen, the lawyer behind the lawsuits that generated the state Supreme Court ruling.

The first car seizure ordinance of its kind was enacted by Oakland in 1997. Since then other cities have followed suit and as recently as July 21, the California city of Stockton proposed sideshow seizure ordinances based on Oakland’s laws. The court’s 4-3 ruling overturns existing ordinances in two-dozen cities. Most cities say they implemented the laws to abate crime, but the court said cities can’t dish out punishment harsher than state and federal law.

Yakpasua Zazaboi, director of the sideshow documentary Sydewayz, hopes the ruling will open dialogue between sideshow participants and local law enforcement. “Right now would be a prime time for them to build a good relationship with us,” Zazaboi says.

Zazaboi says that harsh punishment for sideshow participants only makes things worse because the threat impound triggers high-speed pursuits, creating more danger for the community. He says that other cities like San Diego have found ways to put car rallies and races in “a more controlled environment,” and that’s what he wants to see happen in the Bay Area.

Officer Holmgren says that the police department and City of Oakland have discussed bringing sideshows into a legal environment like the Oakland Coliseum. But he says that illicit activities tend to come along with sideshows, making it difficult to organize sideshows. “Violence is associated with this, vandalism is associated with this, and a lot of quality of life issues that effect the local community.”

Oakland rapper and sideshow participant J-Stalin insists that he has never seen any violence or vandalism at sideshows.

“It’s just entertainment. It’s like a club outside,” he says. “When we go to a sideshow, we don’t have negativity in mind. It’s just people having a good time.”

However, J-Stalin says sideshows belong in a safer, more controlled environment. Online sideshow footage occasionally depicts mobs destroying sideshow cars, and injuries resulting from cars hitting pedestrians, or drivers falling off of and out of vehicles.

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