Last week the Ohio Supreme Court issued an interesting decision, City of Barberton v. Jenney, that reflects a bit of the clash between human and machine. An Ohio driver challenged a speeding ticket that he received. The State relied on the officer’s visual estimation of the driver’s speed, which was that the driver was exceeding 70 mph in a 60 mph zone. The driver argued that a police officer’s visual estimation, standing alone, is insufficient to sustain a speeding conviction. The Supreme Court rejected that argument. It held instead that an officer’s visual estimate is sufficient if the officer is trained, is certified by the Ohio Peace Officer Training Academy or a similar organization, and is experienced in visually estimating vehicle speed.
This decision seems pretty unremarkable to me — except for the fact that the argument that police officers must use radar devices was made in the first place. In the days before radar guns, of course, police officers had to rely on visual estimates of speed to issue tickets. The Supreme Court opinion notes that the police officer in the case had received specific speed estimation training, and in order to be certified by the OPOTA he needed to demonstrate that he could visually estimate a vehicle’s speed to within three or four miles per hour of its speed. Courts also permit lay witnesses to testify about similar matters based on their visual perception. And, as the Supreme Court noted, the police officer’s credibility always will be subject to challenge. If the jury concludes, after hearing all of the evidence, that the officer’s testimony is not credible or that the officer’s estimate was unreliable, it can find the defendant not guilty.
The fact that mechanical devices can perform certain functions that humans also have performed does not mean that humans no longer can, or should, do so.