Fourth Circuit demands more than a police officer’s visual estimate of speeding to justify traffic stop

Maryland Federal Defense

In United States v. Sowards (No. 10-4133), the defendant was stopped for speeding after a police officer visually estimated that the defendant’s vehicle was traveling 75 mph in a 70-mph zone. The officer’s assessment was uncorroborated by other evidence, such as radar equipment or pacing methods. During the traffic stop, a K-9 sniff of the outside of the defendant’s vehicle signaled the possible presence of drugs. A subsequent search revealed approximately 10 kilograms of cocaine.
Before trial, the defendant moved to suppress the seized cocaine on the grounds that the police officer lacked probable cause to initiate the traffic stop. Following a suppression hearing, the motion was denied and, after entering a conditional guilty plea, the defendant was sentenced to 70 months imprisonment.
On appeal, the Fourth Circuit held that in instances where a vehicle’s speed is estimated to be in slight excess of the legal limit, additional indicia of reliability are necessary to support an officer’s visual estimate. Reviewing the testimony offered at the suppression hearing, the Court found that the police officer lacked reasonably trustworthy information sufficient to support his belief that the defendant was speeding.
First, the Court found that the police officer received no specialized training in the estimation of vehicle speeds. Second, the officer employed “absolutely no technique or method to visually guess vehicle speeds.” Third, the Court acknowledged that the officer demonstrated a stunning difficulty with distance measurements – he had testified, among other things, that there are 12 inches in a yard, and 12 inches “on a yardstick.” Beyond all of this, the officer asserted that “math could change depending on the person who’s behind it.”
Because of these shortcomings in the officer’s testimony, the Fourth Circuit found that the officer lacked probable cause to stop the defendant’s vehicle, and the defendant’s conviction was accordingly reversed.