Confiscating All-Terrain Vehicles in Philly Isn't Easy

Despite law changes to help police keep all-terrain vehicles out of Philadelphia, police have a tough battle on their hands

A horde of riders rolls up Broad Street -- some on dirt bikes, others on four-wheelers. They weave in and out of traffic, stopping cars to control the road.

One biker zips up and along the sidewalk nearly clipping a woman as she walks. Later, another nearly collides head-on with a Fairmount Park ranger SUV.

These are all scenes from a series of riding videos posted to YouTube. Named Philly Ride Out, the videos chronicle an hour’s worth of illegal, inner-city driving.

Such drives are an on-going issue for Philadelphia – especially in the spring and summer months. Citizens and lawmakers see the acts as nuisances and police see them as dangerous.

“The fact that these individuals are riding these vehicles illegally and without any regard for motorists on the road is very disturbing,” Philadelphia Police spokesman Lt. John Stanford said after reviewing the videos.

Lt. Stanford says the department has been working for years to crack down on the use of all-terrain vehicles inside the city. But that's been an uphill battle.

In the past, police would confiscate the illegal vehicles, but they would quickly end up back on the street after being sold at public auctions by the Philadelphia Parking Authority.

Now, thanks to a recent amendment to the city’s traffic code, the department can keep the ATVs, according to Lt. Stanford. After court proceedings, ATVs used in illegal riding can then be destroyed by the department and the owner fined up to $2,000.

“The police department will then have the ability to dispose of the seized vehicles in an appropriate manner as opposed to re-selling them. This will prevent them from circulating back onto the street.”

While the department has the ability to keep the vehicles from getting back on the street, actually getting their hands on them is another fight.

“They don’t stay around for us. They make it their business to stay away from us,” Lt. Stanford said.

As a matter of policy, Philadelphia Police are not supposed to engage in chases unless there’s a major threat to the public. The riders’ ability to easily maneuver around cruisers and flee – especially on dirt bikes – makes catching them tough.

“We don’t get involved in chasing them because you have to look at the danger you can cause potentially to innocent motorists or even them for that matter,” he said. “If we’re there and we can effectively stop them, we will.”

If police do catch up to the riders – exactly where officers stop them matters.

Lt. Stanford says drivers of all-terrain vehicles who are stopped for driving on the street will be subject to the state's motor laws. Tickets can be issued, but the vehicles cannot be confiscated unless it is unregistered or the driver is unlicensed.

ATVs that are driven on sidewalks, through parks or even stopped at a gas station can be immediately taken by police under the new city traffic law. Since they’re not on the roadway, the city jurisdiction kicks in.

Dirt bikes are another issue altogether. The new city law only applies to ATVs, so dirt bikes cannot be immediately impounded.

Also, PennDot officials say certain dirt bikes can be registered for road use, because they’re a type of motorcycle. So if police stop someone for driving that type of dirt bike down the street, they can only ticket them for breaking traffic laws. Lt. Stanford says police can only confiscate a dirt bike under two conditions -- if the operator doesn't have a license or the bike is not registered.

“We can only enforce what we have available to us,” Lt. Stanford said. “Hopefully these new measures will help us take these vehicles off the street.” also shared the videos with the offices of Mayor Michael Nutter and Council President Darryl Clarke. Representatives from both offices did not offer comment, only referring us to police.

Lt. Stanford says their most effective means of confiscating the vehicles comes in the form of stings. He says that allows police to round up many vehicles at once and keeps the drivers from fleeing.

Police are also relying on residents to tip them off when there’s a group of riders rolling through their neighborhood.

“If people know in their neighborhood that these people congregate every Sunday, give us a call, let us know,” he said. “Hopefully we can put that together with what we have available to us and be able to get out there and have an impact on things.”

Contact Vince Lattanzio at 610.668.5532, or follow @VinceLattanzio on Twitter.

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