Santa Rosa tracks and tows cars to curb sideshows

Police in Santa Rosa are cracking down on sideshows by towing and impounding cars connected to the illegal car stunts.  

Catching drivers in the act is difficult, so going after their vehicles after the fact, is another tactic.

"We know your car was involved in some major sideshow activity," Officer Riley Howard told a driver, intercepted Friday evening in front of his house.

In three days of special enforcement about a dozen vehicles have been tracked down and towed, all of them seen performing reckless driving on recent occasions. .

"Sometimes we've seen it with our own eyes, sometimes we see it later on video," Howard told KTVU.

Sideshows are gaining traction in Sonoma County's largest city.

Springing up almost every weekend, they sometimes attract hundreds of drivers and spectators.

"These cars need to be removed from the roadway, they're a danger to the public and they need to be held accountable," said Howard.

By court order, the vehicles will be impounded for 30 days, and it will cost owners about $2500 to get them released from the tow yard.

They vary in size and type, from sports coupes to sedans, pickup trucks to muscle cars.

The last two weekends in September, police were faced with especially stubborn gatherings in shopping center parking lots after closing.

At one of those sideshows, a car spun into two teenage bystanders, injuring them.

Sideshow fans sometimes argue the activity isn't that different from car clubs or other auto enthusiasts, but police differ.

"There is a lot of reckless driving, spinning out, burning out, and people getting hit or almost getting hit," said Santa Rosa Police Sgt. Chris Mahurin.

"We also have people shooting off guns in the crowd, and we're hearing about physical assaults that occur, plus drunk driving."

Santa Rosa, like other cities, tries to disperse sideshows but sometimes they're too big to break up 

Plus, they are moving targets as drivers scatter, then reassemble somewhere else.

Recently, as the CHP helicopter monitored overhead, police raced between three diffferent sideshow locations in less than an hour.

Even Old Courthouse Square, in the heart of downtown, has been the site of a sideshow, with about 150 people.

"The safety factor is our primary concern," said Mahurin, "and we're getting a lot of complaints from neighbors and businesses."

To retrieve a vehicle early, an owner must request a hearing before a judge, but it's unclear how many will do so. 

"I know the community is upset by sideshows, scared that they're happening near homes, on their streets and parking lots, so I'm not sure how the judge is going to look at that," said Mahurin.

During the sweep, some owners have simply come out to find their car gone.

They will receive an explanatory letter in the mail.

At other times, it has been more confrontational, as the owner discovers his vehicle is being seized.

"We've had some pretty upset people come out and be in denial about their vehicle and where they've been," said Howard, "and we've also had some other people who accepted responsiblity and said 'you got me and I did what I did.'"

Debora Villalon is a reporter for KTVU. Email Debora at and follow her on Twitter @DeboraKTVU.