Department’s Crackdown on Intersection Takeovers Fuels State Senator’s Push for New Law (2024)

Department’s Crackdown on Intersection Takeovers Fuels State Senator’s Push for New Law (1)

An urgent solution was needed to address the frenetic pace of intersection takeovers and the dangers associated with them. Fights and shootings often broke out, and spectators were being struck and thrown through the air by out-of-control cars performing reckless stunts. The clampdown of intersections by teenagers, using their cars as barriers to form an inner stage, prevented first responders from traveling through intersections to respond to 911 calls, posing a critical public safety threat.

Over a dozen times, beginning in early 2022, the Miami-Dade Police Department (MDPD) had pounced in to arrest drivers and organizers, and issue citations to spectators. The department’s Media Relations Section distributed to the public press releases announcing the arrests. One of those press releases, detailing the arrests of two drivers who were part of an illegal street takeover in Miami Gardens on Feb. 3, 2024, was read by State Senator Jason Pizzo in his address to the State Legislature on Feb. 6, 2024, urging his fellow lawmakers to back a bill that would increase the penalties against those who organize and participate in illegal street takeovers.

“Those press releases provided the information needed to impart to my colleagues the urgency to act, and the dangers of what was happening,” said Senator Pizzo. “And this is something that is happening throughout the state, every week.”

Concurrent to MDPD’s increased enforcement over the past two years, law enforcement agencies throughout the state were beefing up their own responses. Lieutenant Michael Crabb, assigned to the Orange County Sheriff’s Office Traffic Enforcement Section and Government/Legislative Affairs, said the prevalence of the takeovers can be traced to Hollywood movies glamorizing brash young drivers who push their cars to the edge for the adoration of spectators.

Lieutenant Crabb said one of the most egregious, and brazen, incidents occurred on April 3, 2023, when an Orange County Fire Department firetruck, responding to an emergency call at 1:02 a.m., for a car on fire, was trapped inside an illegal street takeover at the intersection of Sand Lake Road and Winegard Road. A 25-year-old man driving a Dodge Charger Hellcat, a vehicle that is preferred by many drivers, was circling the firetruck, preventing it from leaving the intersection. Several months after that incident, based on video footage, the driver, Elijah Grove-Thomas, was arrested. Grove-Thomas had a history of participating in street takeovers.

Senator Pizzo wrote the first bill back in 2022 that specifically addressed street takeovers, making it a misdemeanor to perform dangerous stunts such as “burnouts,” “doughnuts,” and “drifting,” or organize such gatherings. Spectators also faced $65 fines. The new law, signed by Governor Ron DeSantis on May 6, 2024, goes into effect on July 1, 2024. It was written by Lieutenant Crabb in collaboration with Senator Pizzo. The new law changes the offense to a felony for organizers and drivers, with a possible fine of $2,000. Additionally, there is a vehicle forfeiture provision. Spectators still face a misdemeanor, but the fine increases to $400. A “coordinated street takeover,” according to the new law, “means 10 or more vehicles operated in an organized manner to effect a street takeover.”

The takeovers often pop up in the middle of heavily residential areas, and usually between midnight and 2 a.m., shaking residents from their slumber with the roar of engines, squealing tires, and loud crowds. According to the Florida Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, between 2018 and 2022, there were 6,641 citations issued for either street racing or stunt driving, and the typical age of participants and spectators ranged from 16 to 29.

“This is something that our bureau has been combatting for the past three and a half years, so it does feel good to know that we are making a positive impact, not just in Miami-Dade County, but throughout the state, and this is something that is going to make the community safer,” said Lieutenant Jorge Audino, from the department’s Homeland Security Bureau, which conducts enforcement efforts against illegal street takeovers. Officers have made dozens of arrests and have also confiscated numerous firearms and illegal drugs.

During takeovers, spectators will use their cars to block the roads and essentially create a center stage, which they refer to as the “pit,” for drivers to perform stunts. The drivers seek “street cred” and the more daring their stunts, the more adulation they receive from the crowd. The spectators take videos of the stunts, that they later post on social media.

“This law is going to allow for greater inter-agency cooperation, and makes it more difficult for the individuals committing these crimes to get away with it,” Lieutenant Audino said. “Having Senator Pizzo sponsor the change to this law was something that motivates us to continue to work. We do this for the community.”

Three years ago, Senator Pizzo found himself trapped behind an illegal street takeover. He was returning home, with his chief of staff, from an awards ceremony in Orlando, when he was stuck behind at least twenty cars near the intersection of North Miami Avenue and 62nd Street, in a residential neighborhood just north of Little Haiti. It was approximately 2 a.m., a time when there should have been little to no congestion.

Five minutes passed, and then 10, and still no movement. Senator Pizzo got out of the passenger’s side of the car to find out what was holding up traffic. He could see thick white smoke lifting from the intersection, illuminated by a circle of car lights, and he could hear the screeching of tires and cheering coming from the intersection. Senator Pizzo noticed that his car was parked right in front of the City of Miami Fire Station 9. If firefighters there had been called to an emergency, they would not have been able to leave the station because of the jam of vehicles. The chaotic scene at the intersection lasted for about 30 minutes until police showed up and the crowd scattered into the night.

Senator Pizzo, incredulous at what he had witnessed, decided to utilize his legislative heft to create a new law addressing street takeovers. After the law passed in 2022, he started hearing feedback from law enforcement officials throughout his district, which encompasses Miami-Dade and Broward counties, and throughout the state. They told him that while the law helped, it was not effective enough to make a significant impact.

The department’s Police Legal Bureau worked to get the issue in front of state lawmakers, and it was included among a list of priorities carried by the county’s lobbyists to Tallahassee earlier this year. The bureau’s efforts buttressed those of other law enforcement agencies throughout the state, including the Florida Highway Patrol, to strengthen the law.

“It was so fabulous,” said Bureau Commander Janet Lewis. “It usually takes a couple of sessions to run it through Tallahassee and for it to get the traction to actually pass both houses, and get signed by the governor, but this time it was easy,” she said.

Lieutenant Audino said the department’s Homeland Security Bureau conducts its enforcement with the department’s Robbery Intervention Detail, and its Priority Response Team, as well as City of Miami officers, and other local law enforcement agencies.

Two cases stand out among the stack of the department’s press releases. In April 2023, officers with the bureau arrested a teen who was organizing illegal street takeovers through an online chat room. In that chat, he suggested to anyone attending to throw objects at police should they arrive and get out of their vehicles. He suggested that participants bring fireworks.

And on Jan. 17, 2024, officers arrested Jose Martinez, a 32-year-old Miami man who had been organizing through his Instagram account, large-scale street takeovers since June 6, 2022. Many of his events drew hundreds of spectators and often resulted in violence. According to a department incident report, “As a result of the defendant facilitating and coordinating illegal intersection takeovers, there has been a slew of aggravated rioting committed within the intersections where the defendant directed crowds to gather and commit criminal acts. During the course of these crimes, MDPD personnel responded to numerous calls to include triple shootings where innocent bystanders were shot, several aggravated battery on law enforcement officers, criminal mischief (burning of county roads and traffic light poles), fleeing and eluding, spectators jumping on marked police vehicles and numerous fireworks thrown at law enforcement personnel.”

Lieutenant Audino said the new law has the potential to become a deterrent. “Making it a felony is the biggest change, because it gives us more authority to go after subjects who cross jurisdictional boundaries. The forfeiture component is also big, because we were stopping people, but because the car belonged to their dad, and they hadn’t been convicted yet, we couldn’t start any forfeiture procedure. That’s one thing we are excited to start trying...working with our police legal bureau to see if we can start seizing cars in order to make the most significant impact possible.”

Both Lieutenant Audino and Lieutenant Crabb said they were working on publicity campaigns to inform car club members, and the general public, about the changes in the law.

“We will release a video about the new law,” Lieutenant Crabb said. “We are not trying to be anti-car culture, and if you want to show off your car, we are not against that, but if you act stupid and do dangerous stuff, we will put you in jail.”

Department’s Crackdown on Intersection Takeovers Fuels State Senator’s Push for New Law (2024)
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