Police Airplane Caught You Speeding?

A police airplane caught you speeding? Or did it? The Iowa State Patrol and other Iowa law enforcement agencies utilize aircraft to allegedly catch speeders. This method of speed enforcement seems super hi-tech, right? It isn’t. In fact, its highly unscientific and prone to substantial error.

Several years ago I tried an airplane speeding case in Mason City, Iowa. I came away enlightened (and with a not guilty jury verdict). Have you ever wondered what those painted white blocks are in the middle of interstate lanes. You are not alone. I used to wonder all the time. Those blocks are used to clock vehicles from an airplane. Here is how it worked in my case:

A state trooper piloted an aircraft over the interstate. While flying, he also watched the traffic on the interstate. When a vehicle crossed a painted white block the trooper started a stopwatch. When the vehicle crossed the next white block he stopped the stopwatch. Then he inputted the time into a formula which computed the vehicle’s speed. The Trooper then radioed down to another officer to stop my client and ticket him.

Seems legit. However, the formula used to compute speed is completely time dependent and the speed computation changes greatly by the second. In my case, the Trooper admitted that the cars looked like little dots from his vantage point in the air. If the cars looked like dots you can guess what the little painted white blocks looked like (assuming they are really even visible). Moreover, the Trooper admitted in addition to flying the airplane and watching traffic out the side window of the aircraft, he ran three stopwatches simultaneously. On top of it all, the the curvature of the earth actually distorts how you view things from the air to the ground.

I argued that any one of these factors, let alone all of them together, cast doubt that the Trooper’s speed computation was accurate beyond a reasonable doubt. The jury agreed and found my client not guilty. So next time you get a speeding ticket, make sure it didn’t come from the air. If it did, call Stowers & Sarcone – 515.224.7446.

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