Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Visual Estimate of Speed Not Enough for Stop

US v. Sowards: Sowards was driving down I77 in North Carolina when he was stopped by a local deputy, Elliott, for speeding. Specifically, for going 75 in a 70 mile per hour zone. Elliott had a drug dog with him who alerted to the presence of drugs. A search revealed 10 kilograms of cocaine in the car. Sowards was charged with possession with intent to distribute. He moved to suppress the cocaine, arguing that Elliot lacked probable cause to stop him for speeding. Elliott testified that he had not tagged Sowards with radar or paced Sowards in his own cruiser, he had simply observed Sowards and knew he was speeding. After a hearing at which Elliott's powers of perception were somewhat undermined, the district court denied the motion. Sowards entered a conditional plea. 

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit reversed the district court, 2-1. As the court framed the issue, it was "whether, given the totality of the circumstances, Deputy Elliott had reasonably trustworthy information sufficient to support a prudent person's belief that Sowards was speeding." In evaluating that issue, the court found that many of the district court's findings were clearly erroneous. For example, the district court concluded that Elliot had been "trained to estimate speeds," although that training was done in the context of how to use a radar unit, not simply to estimate speeds on his own. Furthermore, Elliot could not explain any method he used to determine Sowards's speed and, indeed, denied having any method at all. The court also found the district court's conclusion that Elliott's "difficulty with measurements is immaterial" to "ring[] in the absurd" because estimating speed requires determining the distance that object is covering in a certain period or time. The court noted that Elliott "exhibited a notable absence of fluency in his knowledge of distance measurements." Rejecting the Government's argument that Elliott's educated guess was sufficient to support the stop, the court noted that the closer the speed is to the legal limit, the more scrutiny the officer's estimation must receive. Given the high speed involved and the slight difference between the limit and the alleged speeding in this case, Elliott's uncorroborated observation alone was not sufficient.

 Chief Judge Traxler dissented, resting his argument heavily on the fact that Elliott's certification for estimating speed provided him with an average error rate of no more than 3.5 miles per hour. The majority points out that this "certification" involved a visual estimate backed up with a radar gun, which Elliot did not use in this case (he testified that he intentionally positioned his cruiser so he could not use radar). Traxler also argues that the majority's new requirement for some sort of corroboration to the officer's observation has no basis in prior caselaw.

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