Orlando Sentinel
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Reckless bikers risk losing rides

Henry Pierson Curtis | Sentinel Staff Writer
Posted January 6, 2007

The young daredevils who speed away from police on high-performance motorcycles face a growing risk across Florida: losing their wheels.

All it takes is letting a cop get close enough to their fast-moving bikes to see the license plate.

But it's not as easy as it sounds.

Young riders rarely brake. They snap the throttle. And they give the finger to cops at 150 mph -- faster than any police car built.

"All the law says is we get the tag number, we just come and pick up the bike [or car]," Florida Highway Patrol spokeswoman Trooper Kim Miller said Thursday. "Whenever they give us a tool, we use the tool."

Three confiscated sport bikes now sit outside FHP troop headquarters in Orlando. Four await forfeiture in DeLand. And 15 to 20 more are locked in a shed in Miami. In 2006, records show, FHP confiscated 344 motorcycles from riders who ran or committed some other felony.

It's a tiny number in a state with about 400,000 registered motorcycles -- and riders who know the cops can't always chase them because of changes in pursuit policies.

But just wait. In the next 30 days, FHP and police departments in South Florida are forming a task force to crack down on sport bikers who refuse to stop.

Officers can keep up with most cars on the road, so chases are more of an issue with high-speed motorcycles. It used to be rare for motorists to flee from police.

"Now, it's not," said Lt. Pat Santangelo in Miami, who joined FHP in 1982. "Of course, years ago, people knew we'd chase 'em."

Besides the stricter chase policies -- aimed at preventing crashes because of pursuits -- the surge in bikers who flee since the 1990s is attributed to marketing 150-mph motorcycles to teenagers for monthly payments that break down to as little as $3.33 a day.

Running is so common, officers say, that riders frequently bend their tags to make them harder to see. FHP is lobbying state legislators to increase the size of motorcycle tags from 3-by-6 inches to a more visible size.

Orlando-based Trooper Harold Schweinsberg described how often young riders have refused to stop for him as "too numerous to remember." So he and other troopers do their best to get the tag number before turning on their blue lights.

"They're usually riding so recklessly, they're not watching who's coming up behind," he said.

In 2005, Schweinsberg bagged a Yamaha R6 when its rider, Shawn Connor, fled after "popping a wheelie" at 80 mph on Interstate 4. Connor, then 23, and a buddy on another bike sped away onto Florida's Turnpike without stopping to pay their tolls, arrest records show.

Thinking they got away, the two stopped to refuel at the Turkey Creek service plaza. That's where the other rider escaped on a bike without a tag when Schweinsberg busted Connor and took his motorcycle.

"He looked surprised," the trooper said.

The move to seize motorcycles or cars from drivers who flee police -- a felony in Florida -- is happening internationally.

In Australia, police call seizing motorcycles "hoon enforcement," slang for "a show-off with limited intelligence." From July through Oct. 23 in 2006, 441 motorcycles and cars were seized in the state of Victoria under a new law letting officers take speeders' vehicles.

Florida law allows the permanent confiscation of any vehicle used in a felony crime, such as fleeing and eluding, or for a second street-racing conviction within five years. The Orange County Sheriff's Office routinely impounds street racers' cars for 10 days and permanently confiscated one repeat offender's car last year.

One Orlando rider who lost his bike doesn't approve of confiscation but said something needs to be done to curtail the deaths of reckless riders.

"A lot of young kids think it's like watching something on TV," said Christopher Williams, a registered nurse and veteran motorcyclist. "You get a lot of second chances in a car. You don't get a second chance on a bike."

FHP seized Williams' motorcycle in 2005 when a trooper stopped his younger brother for riding with a bent tag. The stop led to an arrest on felony charges that later were dropped -- but FHP kept the bike.

Police say confiscation ultimately protects other motorists.

A recent death in south Orange County underscored the danger a recklessly operated motorcycle poses to riders and other motorists.

Lewis Collins, who was not running from police, was riding in excess of 100 mph on Dec. 12 on John Young Parkway when he hit a Nissan Xterra, according to FHP. Collins died instantly when his 400-pound motorcycle flipped over the 4,000-pound sport utility vehicle.

Each year, scores of law-abiding motorcyclists die when struck by other vehicles. No one in Central Florida has been killed by a fleeing motorcyclist, according to interviews.

"If we don't get a handle on it, somebody's going to die as a result of these criminals," Miller said. "There's too much complacency about traffic issues."

The Florida Highway Patrol is taking sport bikes from riders who flee police.

Henry Pierson Curtis can be reached at hcurtis@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5257.