In the war against the scourge of illegal dirt biking, the city may have unearthed a new weapon—the ability to seize bikes and impound them.
That was one idea to emerge from a brainstorming session last week with three aldermen, a police lieutenant, and a lawyer with the city’s corporation counsel office. The group convened in City Hall as part of an ongoing effort to explore legal options the city might pursue to make it harder for dirt bikers to tear around the city frightening neighbors, flouting traffic laws, and even hitting children.
The perennial whine of two-stroke engines has again filled the air as dirt bikes hit the streets this summer. Click the play arrows above and below for a sample.
The bikes are not street legal, but cops have a hard time catching riders because of the city’s no-chase policy, which prohibits cops from pursuing them, for safety reasons.
When they are able to catch them, cops can ticket or arrest the rider and have the bike towed. The rider can then pick up his bike at the towing company lot, provided he proves his ownership and pays a fee of about $80. In some cases, cops can seize the bike as evidence, if an incident involves a more serious crime than operating without registration or insurance, said Lt. Jeff Hoffman.
At Thursday’s meeting, Hoffman joined Aldermen Justin Elicker, Jorge Perez, Al Paolillo, legislative liaison Matt Smith, and city lawyer Alison Lanoue to talk about what else the city can do.
Elicker said the most important idea to come out of Thursday’s meeting was a realization that the city’s ordinances allow cops to seize bikes in all cases, even if they are not evidence of a greater crime.
When a bike is seized, it’s harder for a dirt biker to get it back. Instead of just going to the tow yard and paying a fee, the rider has to go through a court process to recover it, Elicker said. When the cops seize a bike it might mean the bike stays off the streets longer.
“In New Haven, very few to no people that own a dirt bike are planning to operate it legally,” Elicker said.
Elicker said the law in question is Section 29-133e, among a set of laws covering “mini cycles,” a category that includes “Pocketbikes, mini bikes, mini cycles, mini sport bikes, mini motorcycles, mini dirt bikes, chopper scooters, motor scooters, bicycles with helper motors.” The ordinance states that police officers who catch people riding mini cycles on city streets may take the bike “into the custody of the New Haven Police Department, at the owner’s expense, pending a disposition of such property by court order or otherwise by law and proof of ownership…”
“It’s a step forward without having to do anything,” Elicker said. The law is already on the books; cops can start using it immediately. “I think it’s a great thing.”
Lt. Hoffman said the police department is still working out the ramifications of the law and has not issued a new protocol on how to deal with dirt bikes. “Some logistical things have to be worked out first,” he said. The department would need to figure out where to store the bikes, for one thing.
Asked about Thursday’s meeting, city Corporation Counsel Victor Bolden said the city is looking into how it can use local and state laws to get ATV and dirt bikes off of city streets. Legal analysis is “still underway,” he said.
Elicker said the city is also looking to see if it has the ability to charge dirt bike riders a daily storage fee if cops seize their bike, which could make it even harder for them to get their bikes back on the street. If the city doesn’t already have that power, the next step would be to work on creating some state legislation to create or increase fees, he said.
“We welcome any new tools that the state legislature or board of alderman can give us,” said Lt. Hoffman. “We’re working with both legislative bodies to see what we can come up with.”
Thursday’s meeting came after a push by a new anti-dirt-biking coalition called Stop Illegal Traffic (SIT), which has been using SeeClickFix and Facebook to ask people to call and email the mayor and ask him to create stronger policies on dirt biking. Lee Cruz, one of the founders of the group, said SIT quickly realized the city has been trying to do just what the group had concluded was necessary: Find new and stronger legal avenues to prevent dirt biking on city streets.
“It’s ridiculous out there. It’s like the wild west,” said David MacQuarrie (pictured), who’s run New Haven Power Sports on Whalley Avenue for 40 years. He said he’s used to seeing packs of dirt bikes zooming past his store, which sells motorcycles, scooters—and dirt bikes.
MacQuarrie said kids he’s sold bikes to come in now and then looking for papers to prove their ownership after their bike gets towed.
MacQuarrie said he always makes sure, when selling a dirt bike, that the buyer knows it’s not street legal. The bikes have “no blinkers, no mirrors, no lights,” he said. The knobby tires are designed for biting into dirt trails, and provide far less traction on an asphalt street. “They’re very unsafe.”
MacQuarrie said cops seizing more bikes isn’t likely to stop illegal riding. “Whether they collect them or not, I think that’s really going to change much.”
“Kids are kids. What are they going to do?” Dirt biking is better than being inside sitting in front of the TV or “out stealing iPods at Yale,” he said.
He said the ideal solution would be to give people a place to ride legally. He mentioned Milford Riders, a club track where dirt bikers can tear around to their hearts’ content.
New Haven’s problem is that dirt bike owners have no place to ride, he said. “It’s a shame. It’s the same in every city.”
Dirt biker Maajid Muhammad expressed similar sentiments this spring, at the court appearance of a fellow rider. He said dirt biking is a positive outlet for young people. “It keeps you out of trouble. It’s something to do—riding bikes, having fun,” he said. “In New Haven’s there’s not a lot of activity the youth can get into.”
Asked about the rider who had recently run over the 7-year-old girl, Muhammad said, “Accidents happened. ... There are a couple of knuckleheads who can’t ride dirt bikes. That doesn’t mean you ban dirt bikes.”