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Published: Monday, 6/14/2010

Guessing your speed

A recent decision by the Ohio Supreme Court is on everyone's radar because of the inordinate leeway it gives police officers in handing out speeding tickets.

The high court's 5-1 ruling has all sorts of potential for abuse of power. The court decided police don't need radar to cite you for speeding if they've been trained to determine visually how fast a vehicle is going.

In other words, the trained eye of the law is good enough to meet the standard needed to convict someone of speeding. The officer's opinion is de-facto, beyond-a-reasonable-doubt evidence.

The ruling came in a case involving an Akron-area motorist who challenged a visual speed estimate by a Copley, Ohio, police officer. A trial court and an appeals court had upheld his conviction.

The 8th District Court of Appeals, based in Cleveland, ruled that police need more than just sight to support a finding of guilt on a speeding charge. The state Supreme Court upheld the lower courts that found the opposite, asserting that "independent verification of the vehicle's speed [when based on an officer's unaided visual estimation] is not necessary to support a conviction for speeding."

Ruling that a police officer's judgment on speeding is as good as a radar gun would seem to give law enforcement virtually unchecked authority. At the very least, critics say, radar guns and other electronic gauges to catch speeders are relatively objective. The same cannot be said of human judgment, trained or not.

The court ruling, which appears to rob defendants of any opportunity to contest or quantify an officer's word, has struck a nerve with many Ohioans, including civil libertarians. They share dissenting Justice Terrence O'Donnell's position that courts should have more discretion to determine the credibility of an officer's visual speed estimate.

State lawmakers vow to introduce bills this fall that would overrule the court and require officers to verify how fast a driver is moving with radar detectors or other technology. That would be a prudent step to mitigate a court decision that goes too far.

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