Alameda County approves new law for jail time, fines for sideshow spectators

Could you go to jail for watching a sideshow

In the very near future: Yes, you can.

Alameda County supervisors approved an ordinance on Tuesday that would permit police to arrest spectators within 200 feet of an active sideshow. If arrested, spectators could face up to six months in jail and/or a $1,000 fine. 

Although the ordinance passed, it does not become law until a second reading and another vote next week. Civil liberty groups have vowed to fight the law saying it tramples on the First Amendment.  

However, some Alameda County leaders believe the ordinance is what needs to happen to crack down on the problem of dangerous and illegal sideshows in the East Bay.

When police broke up a sideshow at Alameda Point last month, they issued 64 citations for drivers and organizers of the event. But some Alameda County leaders say the spectators — people watching and taking video of this illegal activity, should also face criminal penalties.

ALSO: Alameda police issue 64 citations during sideshow that drew thousands

"When you have hundreds of vehicles, hundreds of participants, all sorts of unlawful behavior, it’s just not wholesome for our society," said Alameda County Board President, Nate Miley, who proposed the ordinance along with Alameda County Sheriff Yesenia Sanchez. "The idea is, if you take away with audience for the sideshow, that might discourage sideshow activity."

But civil liberties groups say a law to punish people watching or recording an event, raises constitutional red flags.


Family of Peninsula couple killed by alleged street racers files civil lawsuit

It has been 215 days since a street racing crash claimed the lives of a Peninsula couple, who were the parents of 7-year-old twin girls.

"We absolutely don't condone illegal driving," said David Loy, First Amendment Coalition Legal Director. "But the public and the press have a right to monitor and observe and report on things that are happening in a public place, even if those things are illegal."

Loy said under the ordinance, even journalists filming illegal activity could be arrested. He said the 200 feet within an event rule is also problematic because sideshows and street racing events are inherently "fluid" incidents.

"It's impossible to know where that perimeter is," he said. "I might be present inside my living room watching and observing a sideshow, within 200 feet of an event."

Supervisor Miley says if the law goes into effect, officers would have to use their discretion when making arrests.

"We do know there's a possibility First Amendment rights could be abridged," he said.

Miley said if someone is mistaken as a spectator and wrongly arrested, their case would be thrown out in court. However, that puts the burden on someone who is innocent to prove their innocence and go through the time and expense of proving that within the court system.

"Yes, it does concern me. I'm balancing civil liberties and First Amendment rights with public safety," Miley said. "But if we continue down this road, we'll end up with chaos. Government can't allow that, we just can't allow that."

The nonprofit, Bay Area-based First Amendment Coalition says if the ordinance becomes law, they will "consider our next steps" to challenge its constitutionality, in court.