Ohio Supreme Court Speeding Ruling Lowers Burden of Proof and Opens the Door Civil Liberty Abuse by Policeby Stephen Littau
Most of us have been pulled over and issued a ticket for speeding or other moving violations at least once in our lives. It’s probably also fair to say that in many if not most cases; we don’t even bother to challenge the ticket because the patrolman says that his radar gun reading showed that you were driving over the speed limit.
There are other times, however less common, which we don’t necessarily agree with the patrolman’s assessment of the facts (example: you failed to come to a complete stop). According to our system, suspects are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law; the government has the burden to prove that an individual violated a law (anything ranging from jaywalking to murder).
At least that’s what I thought.
The state’s Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the trained eyeballs of police officers are enough to hand out speeding tickets. A radar gun is unnecessary.
Some Ohio drivers were stunned. One woman called it “crazy,” adding that “just the radar gun itself is disputable.”
This unidentified woman from the article is right to be skeptical of the technologies the police use. I once received a ticket in the mail from one of those photo radar cameras. According to the ticket, my wife was driving the family minivan by herself in the HOV lane. There was one slight problem though: not only was my wife not driving alone but every single seat in the vehicle was occupied! We knew this ticket was bogus because this particular stretch of highway is one we almost never drive and the one time we did take this particular stretch of highway according to the date it was taken was when my parents were in the vehicle*.
But even as these technologies are disputable, the notion of humans are prone to error is not…except for 5 of 6 judges on the Ohio Supreme Court. The article continues:
In its ruling upholding that conviction, the Ohio Supreme Court said “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.”
In this case, the court ruled, the office was properly trained and certified to eyeball speeding motorists. The court added in its ruling that a radar gun “is not necessary to support a conviction for speeding.”
But one dissenting judge argued that the ruling creates too broad a standard for jurors who must evaluate police testimony. He said the ruling “eclipses the role of the fact-finder to reject such testimony” which, by itself, may not be enough to support a conviction.
I share the dissenting judge’s opinion but I fear that this ruling is even worse that what is stated in this article. We may tend to think of speeding tickets as trivial matters but they really are not. Speeding tickets often means higher insurance premiums and points against an individual’s license. For those who drive for a living and are required to have a CDL, having too many speeding tickets can result in losing his or her livelihood.
In saying that a police officer’s judgment that an individual is speeding is as good as radar gun gives the police virtually unchecked authority and opens the door for future abuse. Radar guns, whether defective or not, are at the very least objective. The same cannot be said for human judgment (trained or not).
Ohio police can now pull over someone for no reason at all, lie about his or her rights, and threaten to write a speeding ticket if the motorist fails to ‘cooperate.’ Some motorists might think it wise to make audio and/or video recordings of any such interaction with the police to ensure such abuses are documented or prevented but as Radley Balko reports, this can have its own set of risks.**
The real ugly truth of the matter is that traffic citations aren’t really as much about safety as they are about revenue. Most states, counties, and cities are seemingly having financial difficulties; it’s in the best interests of these entities to collect as much revenue as possible. With this sort of perverse incentive in place, practically anyone who drives in Ohio can be found guilty of speeding – not beyond a reasonable doubt but merely beyond a reasonable guess.
*We disputed the ticket over the phone and the ticket was dismissed. We didn’t even have to go to court.
**I’m referring specifically to a Maryland motorcyclist, Anthony Graber whose home was raided after he posted a video of a police interaction he had on YouTube. The police said that Graber violated Maryland’s wiretapping law!? If convicted, Graber could serve up to 5 years in prison. Hopefully the Maryland courts are saner than the Ohio courts. There should be absolutely no laws against recording police interactions. Its not my intention to discourage recording the police (quite the opposite) but be sure you know what your rights are. If the police say you are not allowed to record them in a public space, they are probably lying.