War of technologies in California speeding case

Parents of a teen driver use data from a GPS vehicular tracking device to fight a speeding charge based on radar guns.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

A California speeding ticket case to be decided in coming weeks puts a new twist on the age-old cops versus drivers battle, pitting police radar against personal GPS tracking devices.

The case, which is drawing national attention, revolves around 17-year-old Shaun Malone, who in 2007 was clocked by a Petaluma, Calif., police officer going over 62 m.p.h. in a 45 m.p.h. zone. He was found guilty and fined $194. But Shaun's parents contested the ticket, citing data from the satellite tracking device they had installed in their son's car and expert testimony.

The tracking device showed that Shaun was traveling at 45 m.p.h. when the officer stopped him. The data were automatically downloaded into the parents' computer.

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"The speeding ticket – fear of getting one, how to fight one – is such a ubiquitous concern in American culture that this case is extremely interesting and could produce a compelling outcome," says Daniel Filler, senior associate dean for academic and faculty affairs at Drexel University's Earle Mack School of Law in Philadelphia.

Radar versus GPS

By all accounts, the legal case has been a war of experts and technologies. Petaluma police produced their radar evidence. The defense argued that the readings could have been derailed by human error or interference from road signs and passing trucks.

The district attorney countered that the distance between the stoplight and the police radar position couldn't have been covered in the time it was unless the car was traveling faster than 45 m.p.h.

"Since it is impossible to cover that distance going from a full stop to 45 m.p.h. where the officer was, this shows infallibly that Malone was speeding," says Sgt. Ken Savano of the traffic division of the Petaluma police. "We think he sped up to 62.5 m.p.h., then saw the police car and slowed down."

Petaluma police have spent a reported $15,000 on the trial. Sergeant Savano says, "We don't want this [radar] technology to be discredited. We think it helps save teenagers' lives."

However, defense attorney Andrew Martinez claimed that Shaun's stepfather, Roger Rude, recreated the incident 12 times and proved it was possible to have driven that distance without speeding.

According to Rocky Mountain Tracking, which sells the GPS device software, the system registers when the car begins to accelerate and registers the car's speed, direction, and location every 30 seconds after. In Shaun's case, his parents ensured that they would receive an e-mail if his car ever hit 70 m.p.h.

Mr. Rude says, "The issue is not whether radar works, but rather human error in using it." The stretch of highway in question is three lanes and moves around a curve, he says. "It's very easy for radar to lock in on the wrong vehicle. The issue is one of refining the beam so that it doesn't take in such a wide swath of cars and trucks."

Conflict of interest?

But Petaluma's Savano has questioned Rude's motivation because of his appearance promoting the GPS tracking device on the company website.

In a telephone interview, Rude countered that the company contacted him after the case started, and that he receives no money for his appearance. As a former enforcement officer and ambulance driver, his motivation comes from having "seen too many times how teens are killing themselves all over this country [by] being irresponsible behind the wheel," he says.

Drexel University's Mr. Filler says Rude's appearance in the company website video does call into question the motives of the defense. But he also notes that the police have an interest in not having radar challenged because speeding tickets are a major source of revenue for small towns.

Some experts say no legal precedents will be set in the case, but that attitudes about the two technologies could be affected.

"This seems to me to be a battle of credibility, radar versus GPS," says Norman Garland, a law professor at Southwestern University School of Law in Los Angeles.

Staff writer Gloria Goodale contributed to this report.

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