What Do You Mean, I Look Fast?

By John Carr, NMA Massachusetts Activist

We reported last year that the Ohio Supreme Court considered a police officer’s visual estimate of speed sufficiently accurate to uphold a conviction for speeding. A law overturning that ruling went into effect September 30.

The new law reads in relevant part:

(C)(1) No person shall be arrested, charged, or convicted of a violation of any provision of divisions (B) to (O) of section 4511.21 or section 4511.211 of the Revised Code or a substantially similar municipal ordinance based on a peace officer’s unaided visual estimation of the speed of a motor vehicle, trackless trolley, or streetcar. This division does not do any of the following:
(a) Preclude the use by a peace officer of a stopwatch, radar, laser, or other electrical, mechanical, or digital device to determine the speed of a motor vehicle;
(b) Apply regarding any violation other than a violation of divisions (B) to (O) of section 4511.21 or section 4511.211 of the Revised Code or a substantially similar municipal ordinance;
(c) Preclude a peace officer from testifying that the speed of operation of a motor vehicle, trackless trolley, or streetcar was at a speed greater or less than a speed described in division (A) of section 4511.21 of the Revised Code, the admission into evidence of such testimony, or preclude a conviction of a violation of that division based in whole or in part on such testimony.

The cited sections of law are those establishing all numeric speed limits. The “basic rule” (division (A)) is still in effect. A police officer is allowed to testify that he thought you were going unreasonably fast.

This brings Ohio in line with Pennsylvania law on visual estimates. Under Pennsylvania law, as interpreted by state courts, a visual estimate alone can not sustain a conviction for driving over a speed limit but can sustain a conviction for driving at an unreasonable speed.

Convictions for unreasonable speed are hard to come by. “He was going too fast” is an opinion about which one can argue. “He was going over 65” is a statement of fact sufficient to prove guilt. Convictions for unreasonable speed generally require an accident, speeds much greater than normal traffic speed, or an especially corrupt traffic court.

There’s a lesson here. As bad as it sounded, the Ohio court’s decision upholding a conviction for looking fast was not a legal stretch. Ordinary people with no training are usually allowed to testify about speed. Police officers can qualify as expert witnesses on the subject, even though they often get it wrong. Once you say a police officer is qualified to estimate speed the conclusion that an eyeball is good enough for a conviction is nearly inevitable.

The lesson is that the people thought the decision sounded wrong. Drivers put up with a lot of abuse. This relatively minor case rubbed them the wrong way. People complained. Ultimately traffic laws are political creations. If the people complain loudly enough, sometimes politicians listen.

Why did politicians listen this time? Police usually use radar or laser. Requiring police to follow standard practice does not cut into the revenue stream.

If you live in Ohio, thank your representative if he voted for the law. Then tell him you still want higher speed limits.

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