Jeremy wrote to me a couple weeks ago and asked my thoughts on the Ohio Supreme Court’s recent decision regarding speeding and the burden of proof. It’s not necessarily the typical “Ask MC” question, but I think I can make it work.
First, since I don’t live in Ohio…and generally despise the state (due mostly to you Buckeyes out there…Go Irish!!), I had to do a little research. If you’re interested in a longer explanation, you can check out this article. Keep in mind, the inset boxes are a more direct quote from either the Court itself or the news media. Remember, the rest of the article is the opinion of the writer of the blog…just like what I write here.
In a nutshell, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled recently that “a police officer’s unaided visual estimation of a vehicle’s speed is sufficient evidence to support a conviction for speeding…if the officer is properly trained.” Of course, this caused predictable cries of “we’re losing our freedom” and “Ohio is turning into a police state” and other such the-world-is-coming-to-an-end drivel.
As is often the case, in my experience, the public at large is fairly ignorant when it comes to matters of police training, expertise, experience, responsibility, and general daily duties. All too often, folks take what they see in popular culture (books, movies, TV) and bend it to a reality it neither earned nor deserved.
So, I shall take upon myself the mantle of educator. This is gonna be a quick, down and dirty explanation of visual estimation and speed measuring equipment. Here we go…
In Honeycutt vs. Commonwealth of Kentucky (1966), the Court ruled the radar operator (the PO-leece for the sake of our discussion) will have made a visual estimate of the target vehicle speed. That basically means we use radar (the cooler amongst us using lidar) to quantify our visual estimation. POST (Police Officer’s Standards and Training) requires a 24 hour class on how to properly operate a radar (and an additional eight hour course on the lidar…plus four more if the lidar uses the DBC, or Distance Between Cars, function). Included in the course is a practical exam requiring the student to visually estimate ten vehicles’ speeds and distances…the speeds need to be accurate within five miles per hour to pass.
Now, that by no means makes you any kind of expert, but in State of New Jersey v Dominick Dantonio (1955), the Court ruled a few hours of training is sufficient to qualify an operator. Again, in my opinion, that doesn’t mean an officer can go out willy-nilly and just start estimating vehicles with any kind of proficiency. Like anything else, it takes time and practice.
After literally thousands of car stops and tens of thousands of visual estimations, I feel perfectly comfortable and qualified to stop a vehicle based solely on that estimation. When I use my lidar, I consistently am within two to three miles per hour of what my visual estimation was of the target vehicle.
I have also stopped and cited a small number of vehicles based on nothing but my estimation. In a case like that, it is usually if I’m standing on the side of the road away from my bike and I see a car speeding, but I don’t have my lidar in hand.
So, let’s go back to Honeycutt. Or have I bored the shit out of you already? Well for those of you still reading, I applaud you. At any rate, the point behind Honeycutt in part was to justify the officer’s use of radar. Radar works by sending out a radio wave and it bounces off the biggest reflective surface. Consequently, the Court in Honeycutt wanted to establish that “the officer’s estimate of excessive speed from visual observation, when confirmed by the radar and the offending vehicle is out front by itself, nearest the radar is sufficient to identify the vehicle if the officer’s visual observations support the radar.”
That’s a lot of words to say the radar isn’t a target specific piece of equipment and the officer needs to jibe his visual estimation with a piece of equipment that reflects something similar. With today’s use of lidar, which is immensely more target specific and incredibly accurate, I don’t know that Honeycutt really applies anymore…but it does set the standard and base for our use of speed measuring equipment in relation to enforcement.
And that is a long ass winded way to say Ohio didn’t really change anything from what is S.O.P. in today’s law enforcement. They just made it official. There is no legal requirement (in CA and to the best of my knowledge) for me to have a speed measuring device to corroborate my visual estimation. Rather, the radar/lidar needs me to validate its findings, not vice-versa.
It may seem like a silly chicken vs. egg argument and I don’t necessarily disagree. The point remains, however, that if I see you speeding, I’m going to stop you and I’m going to cite you. Maybe I got you on lidar. Maybe I just saw you and said, “Shit, that cat is fucking flying!” Either way, so long as I can articulate it and explain how/why your operation of that vehicle was unsafe at the speed on that roadway under those conditions, you’re gonna lose.
So, you can all blame Jeremy for that drawn out response. I, for one, enjoyed the topic, Jeremy, so thanks for taking the time!