Two Pictures Are Worth A Thousand Words

You can’t cross-examine a speed camera, but if you try really hard, it’s possible to beat the camera at its own game.  Via Jonathan Adler at Volokh Conspiracy, the Washington Post covers Will Foreman’s rage against the machine:

Five times and counting before three different judges, the Prince George’s County business owner has used a computer and a calculation to cast reasonable doubt on the reliability of the soulless traffic enforcers.

After a judge threw out two of his tickets Wednesday, Mr. Foreman said he is confident he has exposed systemic inaccuracies in the systems that generate millions of dollars a year for town, city and county governments.

“You’ve produced an elegant defense and I’m sufficiently doubtful,” Judge Mark T. O’Brien said to William Adams, after hearing evidence that his Subaru was traveling below the 35-mph limit – and not 50 mph as the ticket indicated.

Sweet words to anyone facing the accusation of a machine.  And what was Foreman’s method to beat a speed camera at its own game?

The camera company, Optotraffic, uses a sensor that detects any vehicle exceeding the speed limit by 12 or more mph, then takes two photos of it for identification purposes. The photos are mailed to violators, along with a $40 ticket.

For each ticket, Mr. Foreman digitally superimposed the two photos – taken 0.363 seconds apart from a stationary point, according to an Optotraffic time stamp – creating a single photo with two images of the vehicle.

Using the vehicle’s length as a frame of reference, Mr. Foreman then measured its distance traveled in the elapsed time, allowing him to calculate the vehicle’s speed. In every case, he said, the vehicle was not traveling fast enough to get a ticket.

Elegant indeed, Will Foreman did the math.  But speed cameras, like so many of the technological marvels that have, and will continue to, become the means to accuse are widely accepted by all players in the system as beyond reproach. 

Given a half-decent presentation by some “expert” getting a biweekly check by a manufacturer, police and municipalities are sold on the irrefutability of  machines to ascertain violations of law.  That same “expert” then trots into court, sells a judge on the conclusiveness of the toy purchased in bulk by law enforcement and, like magic, it convicts.  There’s no arguing with magic boxes and pictures with stamps on them.  When the box says you did it, what judge can disagree?

We have become blindly reliant on the accuracy and irrefutability of technology.  While some, perhaps even most, are indeed accurate when properly used, calibrated, cared for, when the optimal conditions exist and nothing interferes or impairs the sterile laboratory settings under which their viability is determined, they don’t necessarily remain accurate when on the road. 

Calibration is one of the biggest scams around, where cops will testify that the tuning forks are used every morning, knowing full well that they were lost the day after the new radar gun arrived.  But since the highway officer believes in the magic of the radar, he has no qualms fudging the details.  He believes that the ticket was deserved, and he knows with absolute certainty that the judge, the same one he appears before every other Thursday, isn’t going to question him or make him produce calibration logs.  Ain’t happening, and nobody will be the wiser.

What Will Foreman proves is that we have locked ourselves into a system that has become so blindly reliant on technology, to the exclusion of human testimony and any potential of beating the charge by honest and heartfelt plea, that we have sold our souls to the machine.  What if the manufacturer of a laser recalibrated it to show that drivers were moving 10 miles faster than they actually are.  Who could dispute it?  What could you do about it?

What about those sweet black boxes into which one blows, awaiting a digital readout that will let you know whether you will be sleeping in your own bed that night or find your face on some registry of people who will be permanently unemployable?  There have been a multitude of efforts to find out exactly what happens inside those boxes, and maybe some day somebody will figure it out.  In the meantime, does it occur to any judge who has ever admitted evidence from a mysterious black box that he will convict a person based on conclusory evidence by some outside equipment vendor, the accuracy of which may be completely assumed?

Seriously, judge, if have no clue how something works, generically or under the specific circumstances presented, how can you blindly assume that magic boxes, cameras, whatever, provide a sufficient basis to sustain a conviction?

Will Foreman proved that speed cameras can be wrong.  There is no machine that is beyond failure or error, whether the cop testifying about how they treat it with love and respect every evening is telling the truth or playing the game of telling you what you want to hear.  It may have been considered sufficient back in the days when the Jetsons were your favorite cartoon to blindly accept technology as being beyond comprehension and question, but we have all grown up since then and have learned that boxes aren’t really magic.

While lawyers ought to be putting in at least as much effort as Will Foreman in the defense of their clients, and challenge of “science” should be part of every lawyers’ basic duties, this effort is worthless if judges embrace the magic of the box as irrefutable proof.  It’s not, and being a rubber stamp for technology manufacturers and facile law enforcement testimony is an abdication of responsibility.

Will Foreman proved that the tech is inaccurate.  How many defendants have you convicted because the box said so? How many times have you refused to listen to the testimony of good people because it was so much easier to believe a magic box?

3 comments on “Two Pictures Are Worth A Thousand Words

  1. BL1Y

    “how can you blindly assume that magic boxes, cameras, whatever, provide a sufficient basis to sustain a conviction?”

    I don’t really understand how a thermometer works, and have never had one calibrated, but I still trust it to tell me when my food is safe to eat. Most days I put my life in the hands of my car, a machine which I barely understand. If you think you’re going 40, and the cop says 45, you’ll probably blindly trust your speedometer, but why?

    For a $40 speeding ticket, I think we can have a lower threshold of accuracy. If the defendant can plead his case, that’s fair, but I don’t think judges, or even cops, need to understand the physics behind radar. Now, if you’re talking about admitting DNA evidence in a felony trial, yeah, everyone ought to be sufficiently educated.

  2. SHG

    Thermometers go bad all the time.  It doesn’t matter whether you know much about thermometers until you get food poisoning from some undercooked pork.  Then it matters a whole lot.

    Same with magic boxes.  Nothing matters until it matters.  And when you get your third ticket for speeding, your insurance skyrockets and your license is suspended so you can’t get to the cheetos store for your fix, then it will matter to you too.

  3. pml

    What I see is he found a Judge who believed his story. The next time in front of a different Judge he very well may get a totally different answer.

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