Who says laser works?

The National Motorists Association got a complaint that Rhode Island courts were accepting laser evidence when they shouldn’t have.

The problem with this way of thinking, however much sense it may make from a rational point of view, is an evidentiary rule of a state court system can’t be wrong (legal sense) simply because it is wrong (common sense) or contrary to your opinion of precedent.

In Rhode Island, a laser is accurate if the police officer says it is. In New York a visual estimate combined with an uncalibrated speedometer is good enough. In Connecticut state law says laser is accurate. And so on.

Rules of evidence are up to each state to decide. Usually states have real rules of evidence for real cases and no oversight worth mentioning for traffic cases.

In the 1990s the U.S. Supreme Court set stricter standards for scientific evidence. An expert witness should not be allowed to testify without convincing the judge that there is a reliable foundation for the testimony. (An expert witness could be anybody from your mechanic to a Ph.D. biochemist, as long as the witness is relying on specialized knowledge or experience.)

The court did not say you have a constitutional right to good science. The court said in its role as the supervisor of the federal court system it would require federal judges to look more carefully at evidence.

Sometimes they do. Sometimes they don’t.

After the Daubert decision many defense attorneys argued to federal judges that fingerprint matching was not a reliable science. The process was subjective rather than quantitative.

What happens if fingerprint evidence is found unreliable? It’s so widely used, throwing it out would be throwing sand in the gears of the conviction machine. So judges found fingerprints reliable under the Daubert standard.

Traffic courts do not like delay or acquittal. The Rhode Island Supreme Court ruled in 1974 that radar evidence was reliable if a police officer said it was. Laser smells a lot like radar, so traffic courts allow it. There’s a trickle of appeals claiming those courts are wrong. No luck, pay your ticket.

Other state courts said radar didn’t have to be reliable if it was only confirming a visual estimate. In New York a judge is entitled to believe an officer’s testimony that a visual estimate is accurate to within 1 mph. Strictly speaking, radar is not even required. It’s expected, but not required.

The Connecticut legislature said that radar must be considered accurate. Even if it isn’t, they didn’t want judges spending time thinking about accuracy.

In states with stricter rules, the custom is the device manufacturer has to convince one judge that the gadget works. Then all the others can follow along. If that one test case seems to be going badly, the prosecutor can drop charges and pick another defendant to set his precedent.

Even in DUI cases, which are halfway to being real crimes, the attitude is the breathalyzer is the source of truth. Defense attorneys have had very limited success getting their own experts a chance to review the systems and software inside. Trials are not a battle of experts. The prosecution gets an expert and you don’t.

The ironic effect of this attitude towards justice is you may be better off getting your traffic violation upgraded to a regular misdemeanor.

In traffic court you’re some maniac who went ten count them ten miles per hour over the speed limit that our town fought hard to get reduced. You’re a potential contributor to the judge’s retirement fund. Your 65 in a 55 zone or .11% in a .08% zone is their life blood. Their revenue source. Their sole purpose in life is to get you convicted.

In criminal court you’re a distraction. Say you tried to elude police and got caught. Technically a crime, but take a look around you. Maybe the case after yours is a guy who kicked his wife’s face in. Definitely a crime. They need to have the trial before she changes her mind about testifying. The judge could give you unsupervised probation with nothing on your driving record. Just hurry up and get out of court.

I’ve heard several stories of people who escalated traffic violations to misdemeanors and had a better result in court.

Before you take this as advice to start a high speed chase, remember Rodney King. The judge may be kinder to you than the officers you disrespected.

The opinions expressed in this post belong to the author and do not necessarily represent those of the National Motorists Association or the NMA Foundation. This content is for informational purposes and is not intended as legal advice. No representations are made regarding the accuracy of this post or the included links.

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