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Ticketing by the Speed of Sight

Ohio high court rules officers can issue citations based on visual estimate of a vehicle’s traveling rate

Ohio peace officers must possess skills eclipsing those of mere mortals, because the Supreme Court of Ohio recently ruled that state law enforcement officials can issue speeding tickets by estimating a vehicle’s velocity.

The 5-1 decision stemmed from a ticket received in July 2008 by motorist Mark Jenney in Copley, Ohio, a township just west of Akron. A Copley police officer who had trained at the Ohio Peace Officer Training Academy (OPOTA) guessed that Jenney’s SUV was traveling 79 mph in a 60 mph zone.

The Ohio Supreme Court came down on the side of two lower state courts that convicted Jenney, who had to pay a $50 fine plus court costs.

“Honestly, if all they did was affirm the lower court decisions, I would have been extremely disappointed, perhaps even angry,” says attorney John Kim, who represented Jenney. “The Supreme Court didn’t just affirm the lower courts—they actually came out with a broad, sweeping law.

“They established court precedent that said that if an Ohio peace officer is OPOTA-certified and they have some training, then they will be qualified to render a speeding citation based upon unaided visual estimation of speed.”

Kim says his client wants the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in on the case.

Ohio Supreme Court spokesman Chris Davey says news reports have skewed the court decision. “The misimpression that’s been perpetuated is that police in Ohio are now free to write speeding tickets on a whim,” Davey says. “This is false. The 5-1 opinion of the Supreme Court was very narrowly tailored” and upheld precedent established in seven Ohio appeals courts, according to Davey.

Republican state Sen. Tim Grendell has introduced a bill requiring that vehicle speeds be determined using mechanical verification. “Even with a traffic ticket in our system, you’re innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt,” Grendell says. “As much as I have faith in law enforcement, they’re only human.”

James L. Hardiman, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Ohio professes he is baffled by the court’s decision, given that radar, laser, stopwatches and other devices can accurately nab speeding drivers.

“To step backward and say we’ll rely on estimates is predictably going to create a situation where some law enforcement officers are going to abuse the authority the [Ohio] Supreme Court gave them,” Hardiman says.

Blair S. Walker is a writer in Miami.

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