Judge hears debate on the accuracy of laser guns used to catch speeders

May 14, 1994|By Alan J. Craver | Alan J. Craver,Sun Staff Writer

A Howard County judge heard conflicting information yesterday about the accuracy and reliability of laser guns used by police officers to nab speeders on Maryland's highways.

Circuit Judge Raymond Kane Jr. is expected to issue a ruling Monday in the case of David Goldstein, a Gaithersburg transportation consultant challenging the kind of laser gun used to snare him for speeding.

Mr. Goldstein, 46, was clocked at 74 mph in his 1987 Audi by a Howard County police officer operating a laser gun along Route 32 near Jessup on July 17, 1992. The highway has a 55-mph speed limit.

He was convicted of speeding in Howard District Court in April 1993 and appealed the conviction, making the case the first of its kind to reach the Circuit Court level in Maryland.

In ruling on Mr. Goldstein's conviction, Judge Kane must decide if results from the officer's laser gun can be used as evidence by determining whether such devices generally are accepted by scientists.

Judge Kane also must decide whether the state General Assembly's decision not to pass laws authorizing the use of laser guns means that police agencies should not be operating the devices.

Kevin Reynolds, an Annapolis attorney for Mr. Goldstein, argued that laser guns do not have the proper circuitry to give accurate speed readings. He said there is no way to guarantee that the units function correctly other than to check their monitors.

"How do we know whether [the device] is working properly?" Mr. Reynolds said. "Because it tells us so. With this device, I'm not sure that's enough."

He said that no federal agencies have approved laser guns and that most studies, training programs and certification procedures come from the laser unit's manufacturer, Laser Technology Inc. of Englewood, Colo.

Mr. Reynolds said courts nationwide are beginning to dismiss speeding cases based on readings from laser guns. He cited a 1993 ruling in a Michigan case involving a motorist traveling 74 mph in a 55-mph zone.

But Assistant State's Attorney Shawn Larson countered that laser guns are becoming standard equipment in police departments across the country. He listed about a dozen states where the devices are used regularly.

Mr. Larson said the technology used in laser guns has been around for about 15 years. He noted that a device similar to the ones used by police has been sent on seven space

shuttle missions.

"The technology here is nothing new," Mr. Larson said. "This technology has been used by NASA."

The prosecutor argued that laser guns give accurate readings, noting that the Howard Police Department conducted 1,031 tests comparing laser and radar devices. The devices gave identical readings in 68 percent of the tests and fell within one mph of each other in the remaining tests.

Mr. Larson compared laser guns to DNA tests used to link crime suspects to the victims through traces of blood and skin. In the past, courts held hearings each time DNA tests were to be used to determine if such evidence could be introduced at trial. Legislators then passed a law permitting DNA evidence without such a hearing.

"What we have here is the legislature putting the onus on the NTC courts," Mr. Larson said. "Perhaps they need to see how the issue would be worked out in the courts."

But Mr. Reynolds noted that General Assembly committees killed bills that would have permitted police to use laser guns in 1992 and 1993, despite extensive testimony and demonstrations by supporters of the devices.

The legislators "didn't want it," he said. "This is unauthorized technology."

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