In a 5-1 decision, the Ohio Supreme Court upheld a conviction on a speeding ticket solely based on the arresting officer’s guess as to how fast the car was moving. No radar. No lasers. Just a cop that said, “Man, it looks like he’s going 79 miles per hour in this 60 mile per hour zone.” That’s right, 79. Not 75 and certainly not 80. Exactly 79.
Officer Christopher R. Santimarino testified that he had worked traffic enforcement since 1995 and received specialized training to visually estimate the speed of a vehicle. This training means that Santimarino was able to correctly guess the speed of a vehicle within 4 miles per hour of its actual speed. It must have been plain luck that Santimarino did not write the driver a ticket for going 64 in a 60.
The real kick in this case is that Santimarino claimed that his radar gun clocked the driver at 82 miles per hour – but he could not produce a copy of his radar training certificate on the day of trial so that evidence was thrown out. But the trial court allowed his guess to be considered as evidence and convicted the driver based on that alone.
From an academic standpoint, I understand what Justice Maureen O’Connor is saying in her opinion. She’s saying that a properly trained police officer’s account of the event is admissible evidence so the jury should be allowed to hear the officer’s guess. Maybe that is admissible persuasive evidence, but maybe a guess is not “sufficient evidence” to convict.
Ohio appellate courts were split on this “guess evidence.” Six appellate districts have held that a guess is good enough and three districts have held that a guess is not enough to overcome the presumption of innocence and the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt for conviction.
The theory here is that machines, like radar guns, are exacting instruments, but humans can make mistakes – even the highly trained ones. Just ask Major League umpire Jim Joyce who mistakenly called a Cleveland Indians runner safe at first base robbing the Detroit Tigers’ Armanda Galarraga of a perfect game this season. Joyce has officiated major league baseball games for 21 years including All-Star games, division championships, league championships, and World Series games. The Indians runner was out by a mile and Joyce called him safe based solely on his visual observation and standing just a few feet away. He later acknowledged his mistake upon seeing the replay footage. Human error. Highly trained human error.
You can’t reverse a bad call like Joyce’s in baseball because it is accepted that human error is a part of the game. But, is human error an accepted part of our justice system to the point where an erroneous allegation can result in a criminal conviction? Our Nation’s “presumption of innocence” and the necessity for “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” does not sound like guess work to me.
You can read the decision in Barberton v. Jenney right here.