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Laser Speed-Detector Results Admissible Without Expert Witness Verification

Image of a police officer holding a laser speed-measuring device (istock/Evgen_Prozhyrko)

The Court ruled laser speed detectors results can be used in court without an expert witness testifying about how the technology works.

Image of a police officer holding a laser speed-measuring device (istock/Evgen_Prozhyrko)

The Court ruled laser speed detectors results can be used in court without an expert witness testifying about how the technology works.

The results of radar or laser speed-measuring devices can be admitted in court to convict speeders without an expert witness testifying to, or noting, any prior Ohio court ruling affirming, the scientific principles of the technology, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled today.

In a 6-1 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that, while the scientific principles underlying the technology of radar or laser speed-detection need not be questioned, a court must still determine if there is evidence to prove the accuracy of the actual device used and that the machine was operated properly.

The Court affirmed an Eighth District Court of Appeals decision that rejected a challenge to a speeding ticket issued by a Brook Park police officer using a laser detector in May 2017. Writing for the Court majority, Justice Melody J. Stewart noted the Supreme Court has not addressed the scientific reliability of laser speed-measuring technology, but it accepted the Eighth District’s finding that laser detectors work on the same scientific principles as radar speed detectors.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Judith L. French, Patrick F. Fischer, R. Patrick DeWine, and Michael P. Donnelly joined the opinion.

Justice Sharon L. Kennedy dissented, noting the majority is relying on the Court’s 1958 East Cleveland v. Ferrell decision and ignoring the Ohio Rules of Evidence. She wrote the Court should require the state to follow the rules to prove the reliability of the technology before the machines can be used to determine an accused speeder’s guilt.

Driver Contests Speeding Ticket
Joseph Rodojev was cited for driving 15 mph over the posted speed limit in Brook Park. The officer writing the citation used an LTI 20/20 TruSpeed S laser detector to measure the speed of Rodojev’s vehicle.

Rodojev contested the ticket in Berea Municipal Court, which hears cases from Brook Park and five other Cleveland-area communities. The trial court admitted the evidence from the detector without expert testimony establishing the reliability of the scientific principles underlying the technology. The trial court did not take “judicial notice” of any other superior court decision where an expert demonstrated the reliability of the technology.

Rodojev maintained that under the Ohio Rules of Evidence, without an expert witness or judicial notice, the detector’s results were not admissible evidence. The trial court disagreed, and he was convicted of speeding. He appealed to the Eighth District, which affirmed the trial court’s ruling.

The Eighth District noted that its decision was in conflict with other Ohio appeals courts and certified the question to the Supreme Court as to whether expert testimony or judicial notice was required to admit results of speed-measuring devices. The Court agreed to address the conflict.

Reliability of Speed Detectors Established
Justice Stewart wrote that while Rodojev challenged the admissibility of the test results, he did not argue or present any evidence suggesting the reliability of the scientific principles underlying laser detectors are “invalid or even suspect.” She did note the Eighth District correctly indicated that the Ohio Supreme Court has never addressed the admissibility of laser detectors based on the reliability of the underlying science.

The majority opinion explains the history of radar detection, which first emerged in the 1860s. By the time the Court ruled in Ferrell, radar had been used for nearly a century to detect the speed of moving objects, the opinion stated.

The opinion continued that while the Court ruled the results from radar detectors were admissible, the “sufficiency of the evidence regarding the accuracy of the device and the qualifications of the person who used the device remained matters to be considered by the factfinder on a case-by-case basis.”

The use of lasers to measure speed was first theorized by physicist Albert Einstein in 1917 and developed for use by physicist Theodore Maiman in 1960, the Court wrote. Laser detectors were first offered to law enforcement in 1991.

The Court stated it is “satisfied” that the scientific principles underlying laser speed detectors are sufficiently reliable and pointed to other state high courts, including those in Maryland, Illinois, and Vermont, which have reached the same conclusion.

Other Challenges to Laser Speed Devices Remain 
While an accused speeder cannot challenge the admission of the detector results, other “substantive challenges” to the laser  device remain, the Court noted. Motorists have challenged the angle at which the officer held the device; the device’s “accuracy-validation algorithms”; device calibration and maintenance; and the qualifications of the officer using the device. The opinion notes these challenges implicate the sufficiency of the evidence, not the admissibility of the detector’s results. Challenges to the sufficiency of a particular device used and how it was used can continue, the Court concluded.

Reliability of Technology Should Be Established, Dissent Maintains
In her dissent, Justice Kennedy notes Ohio no longer allows a speeding charge based on a law enforcement officer’s unaided visual estimation, and requires that devices be used. The Court is allowing the state to “cut corners” by admitting laser technology without first using the rules of evidence to validate the underlying science.

Justice Kennedy noted that when a speeding ticket is contested, a trial court can take “judicial notice” of the science from one of three sources rather than hear the testimony of an expert witness. The reliability of device can come from (1) a reported trial court decision, (2) a reported or unreported appeals court decision, or (3) previous consideration of expert testimony on a specific device that a trial court noted on the record.

Rather than “dust off” Ferrell,  the dissenting opinion stated, Ohio courts should have to establish the underlying science of laser devices, especially since their results determine the guilt or lack of guilt of someone charged with speeding. She wrote, “Although the scientific reliability of laser speed-measuring technology in general might be settled, that does not mean that any particular device that the state claims is a laser speed-measuring device actually employs that settled science.”

Justice Kennedy also noted that some states, including Georgia and Connecticut, have passed state laws establishing the admissibility of laser devices. Ohio lawmakers could follow their lead, removing the courts from making that policy decision, she wrote.

2019-0056. Brook Park v. Rodojev, Slip Opinion No. 2020-Ohio-3253.

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