Photo by WEWS.
The following article was originally published on News5Cleveland.com and is published in the Ohio Capital Journal under a content-sharing agreement. Unlike other OCJ articles, it is not available for free republication by other news outlets as it is owned by WEWS in Cleveland.
Ohio lawmakers want to slam the breaks on “hooning,” or reckless driving, putting forward a new bill to curb speed racing, performing dangerous donuts and allowing passengers to ride out windows.
Nighttime street takeovers have become a common site for downtown Clevelanders who say the drivers leave before the police get there.
Mike Rogalski got stuck at one of the busiest intersections in downtown Cleveland, West 25th Street and Detroit Avenue, all because a group of joyriders wanted to do stunts on his route home.
“I felt trapped. I couldn’t go in reverse. I couldn’t go forward,” Rogalski said.
The group of drivers blocked traffic and the nearby Detroit-Super Bridge. Rogalski captured cell phone video of at least two drivers performing dozens of donuts as onlookers gloated them on. This was part of a group of dozens of drivers who took over several intersections and turned them into their personal stunt tracks back in the spring.
“An unofficial sort-of gang of vehicles not allowing you to not be part of something,” the witness said. “or block you to go home or just blocking any public right away.”
Gary Wolske, the president of the Fraternal Order of Police of Ohio and a retired Garfield Heights lieutenant, said these situations rarely get caught.
“Nobody’s chasing anybody that far to try to find a car that’s, you know, recklessly driving,” Wolske said. “It’s very, very difficult to enforce unless there are folks that are actually up on a highway.”
With greater crimes taking place, plus the police staffing shortage, they can’t waste resources speeding to find an undisclosed group of cars all over the county, he said.
When the joyriders are caught, though, the punishment is only a minor misdemeanor that comes with a $150 fine for a first offense.
When asked if the penalties are enough to deter someone from engaging in reckless behavior, the officer gave an unequivocal no.
“Those folks don’t care about the law,” he said. “If you’re out there being that crazy, you don’t care about the ramifications.”
Republican state lawmakers want to raise the stakes. State Reps Phil Plummer (R-Dayton) and Kevin Miller (R-Newark) introduced House Bill 740, which would prohibit hooning on public roads or private property open to the public.
Violators could end up in jail for six months, have their license suspended and have to pay a $1,000 fine. Vehicles could also be seized in this process.
Although he is skeptical and the FOP hasn’t come out with an opinion on the bill yet, Wolske said he is willing to look at any potential solutions.
“Increasing the penalties is a good start because maybe that’ll deter somebody,” he said, noting that there isn’t one clear answer.
Another issue arises when jail sentences are being used as punishment, the officer added.
“Even if these folks were charged with a first-degree misdemeanor, which is up to a year in jail and $1,000, the judges have no place to put them,” he said, adding that violent crimes take priority in jail over nonviolent or misdemeanor crimes.
The bill isn’t just for driving recklessly, it’s for watching, too. Spectators could get a $1,000 fine and have to do hundreds of hours of community services.
There are, of course, exceptions to the law. The rules do not apply if the driver or spectator is taking part in a race sponsored by a recognized, or “responsible” organization or a race authorized by local or state authorities.
OCJ/WEWS wanted to interview the lawmakers to discuss the impact of the bill and also to ask clarifying questions about the language, however neither of the sponsors were available.
“I don’t think anybody, any reasonable person wants to ruin anyone’s life by maybe causing a felony or going to prison for this type of activity,” Rogalski said. “But there has to be a point where we say, ‘no, it’s unwanted. It’s not welcome. Do not come back.'”
Both Rogalski and Wolske also brought up another concern when it comes to reckless drivers. At one point, Rogalski said he tried to go around the group in order to get home but he was quickly questioned by some of the participants.
“They said, ‘what do you think you’re doing?’ I said, ‘nothing, just minding my own business,’” Rogalski said. “They were going to stay there until officers came. They didn’t care whatsoever. There was nothing I could do… I didn’t want to become a victim. I just sat there and smiled like a good Cleveland resident.”
After Rogalski was interviewed by OCJ/WEWS in May, he received some intimidating messages from people alleging to be part of a group of drivers. He shared the messages with police officers, he said. In sharing these messages with OCJ/WEWS on Wednesday, he wanted to raise awareness that approaching people can be dangerous.
Wolske agreed, citing that police now need to be extra careful, since Ohio lawmakers took away their knowledge of who is carrying a firearm by implementing permitless carry.
“A lot of things that the legislators have done have curtailed police officers,” he said. “Now you approach [drivers] and you’re extremely cautious because they’re acting reckless and crazy. The first thing you have to ask, because they don’t have to tell you anymore, that they have a gun.”
The bill is too new to have public opponents, but that could change if it’s heard after the election. Rogalski said the only thing he might change is letting the judges or county prosecutors have more discretion and flexibility in the penalties to discourage this type of behavior.
“These people were hanging out the windows — you could easily fall out and get run over by the same wheel of the car that’s currently burning out as it rolls over,” he said. “It’s just the lack of consideration for the community or even their own lives.”
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