Visual estimates of speed not enough for stop if the arresting officer is sufficiently dumb
Recently, the Fourth Circuit declared in US v. Sowards that a stop was illegal where based solely on an officer's training and experience. In that case, the Defendant was stopped for driving approximately five miles over the speed limit as estimated by the arresting officer. Following the arrest, the Officer found a quantity of drugs in the vehicle, which the Defendant moved to suppress on the grounds that the officer had no grounds to stop the vehicle.
At the trial, the Defendant challenged the officer's ability to estimate speeds. At trial, the officer declared that Sowards' car was approximately 100 yards away.
On cross-examination, and when questioned directly by the district court about his knowledge of distances, Deputy Elliott gave several inconsistent and incorrect answers regarding measurements:Q. [Government counsel] And how many feet are in a hundred yards?A. [Deputy Elliott] There’s 12 feet in a yard.Q. So 300 feet?A. Correct.Q: And how many feet are in a yard?A: How many feet? There’s 12 feet in a yard.THE COURT: Well, do you know what a yardstick is?[Deputy Elliott]: Yes, sir.THE COURT: How many inches in a yardstick?[Deputy Elliott]: Well, on a yardstick there’s 12inches. Well, it depends on the yard stick that you have.THE COURT: Use your hands to indicate a yardstick.[Deputy Elliott]: A yardstick is about that long (indicating).THE COURT: All right. And how many inches are in it?THE WITNESS: Four foot in a yard.US v. Sowards, No. 10-4133 at 5-6 (June 26, 2012)
The Fourth Circuit, upon reviewing the totality of the officer's basis for the stop, overturned the trial court's ruling stating that "Deputy Elliott lacked probable cause to initiate a traffic stop based exclusively on his uncorroborated and unsupported belief that Sowards was traveling 75 mph in a 70-mph zone."
So, what does this mean to you? When you are stopped and charged following that stop, you should consider that the officers involved are human and can make very human errors. You should carefully weigh whether it is worth it to question the officer's judgment. In most cases, it will not affect the outcome of your case if you challenge the officer on a preliminary issue like this one. Your attorney should be prepared at a hearing to address these issues as they arise and make sure that when the officer involved doesn't know the length of a yard, the Court is aware of his shortcomings. It may make a vital difference that would affect you for the rest of your life.
Remember that making fun of police officers is sensitive business and should only be undertaken by a trained professional like myself.