A makeshift memorial marked a spot in Frayser where street racing led to a fatality last year. (Screen capture)

by James Coleman —

As Memphis continues to grapple with an epidemic of street racing, Memphis City Council members learned during the Tuesday, (Jan. 18) Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee meeting that most charges eventually are dismissed. 

One of the biggest challenges, it turns out, is proving drag racing actually occurred. 

“Law enforcement is doing the best they can under the limitations of the law policies,” said Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich.

The DA described a legal system hamstrung by policies, both local and state, which vaults the prosecutorial bar. Ethical considerations often lift the bar even higher.

Shelby County District Atty. Gen. Amy Weirich

“Just because an arrest is made and someone is charged with a crime, doesn’t automatically transfer into a situation where we are able to proceed further and where we are able to proceed to a conviction, either in front of a jury, in front of a judge, or through a guilty plea,” said Weirich.

Instead, most cases are “nolle prossed,” or dismissed by prosecutors. Last year, for example, 23 out of 33 drag racing charges were dismissed. 

Meanwhile, 636 out of 780 reckless driving cases met the same fate. 

“The nolle process, dismissed without cause, the DLOP’s ˗ there are a whole host of reasons why prosecutors dismiss cases, whether it’s drag racing, murder, or anything in between. The number one reason is we can’t prove our case,” said Weirich.

She continued, “These are not stand-alone charges. In other words, most of these reckless driving numbers that you’re looking at; that charge is going to be connected to a driving under the influence charge. 

A charge of reckless driving automatically accompanies any DUI charge. Ironically, most arrested for reckless driving or drag racing are charged with a DUI too.”

Yet, drag racing occurrences frequently are charged as reckless driving because the former can be difficult to pin on an individual. Most arrests aren’t made until days after the occurrence. This is because of MPD’s no-chase policies. Proving who drove the car is another matter. 

“That presentation might be more depressing than I anticipated,” said committee chair Worth Morgan. “We know that the car fled, but we can’t prosecute that individual because we can’t prove beyond a reasonable doubt that they were the driver, especially if multiple people had access to the car.”

Cumbersome state policies also add to the problem. Forfeiture or seizure of a vehicle is prohibited unless the driver has been charged. The offender must also be the sole owner of the car. 

Locating the vehicle also presents its own set of problems.

“There’s nothing stopping them from selling that car, or hiding it, or giving the car to someone else. So, law enforcement then must spend time and energy locating that car if those other two conditions have been met as well,” Weirich said.

However, the bar to prove reckless driving is much lower – proof the offender drove in willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property.

“I promise you as we are discovering these policies and the holes and gaps in them, the individuals we are pursuing know it like the back of their hands,” warned Morgan.

Weirich recommended that reckless driving be bumped up from a serious misdemeanor to a felony, allowing seizure of the vehicle at arrest.