Exceeding 65 mph – CHP on the Freeway

The hands-down most common speeding ticket is either California Vehicle Code Section 22349(a), usually issued by the California Highway Patrol (hereafter “CHP”) issued on a freeway, or California Vehicle Code Section 22350, usually issued by city police on a city street. Here, we will introduce 22349(a), exceeding the posted maximum speed of 65 miles per hour. The exact text of the California Vehicle Code is this:

 

Maximum Speed Limit

22349. (a) Except as provided in Section 22356, no person may drive a vehicle upon a highway at a speed greater than 65 miles per hour.

 

Section 22349(a) is really quite simple. This is your typical 65 mph posted on the freeway. (This does not apply to commercial truckers who are usually subject to a maximum of 55 mph even when posted 65 — same applies to pulling a u-haul trailers, etc.) Basically, 66 mph or more is a violation. Nevertheless, higher speeds are much easier to prove in court versus fighting over one or two miles per hour. When someone is cited for something like 67, that does create a pretty good trial and could get dismissed on the merits. Regardless, higher speeds generate higher fines. Higher fines are broken down in mph increments over the speed limit. 1-15 over is a $35 base fine. 16-25 over is $70 base fine. 26 or more over is a $100 base fine. For example, in Orange County, a $35 fine really means $238, $70 is $367, and $100 is $490. (Do not forget to add $54 for court administrative costs to process traffic school. In addition, add another $10 to the base fine for each prior violation, which exponentially effects the total.)

However, we all know that on Los Angeles County freeways, if you do not go at least 65 mph, you will get honked at, lights flashed at, and passed by/swerved around. As a side note, CHP officers have their hands full with fast speeders and other pressing issues, so, as with any operation, choices must be made as to where to allocate resources. It does not take a genius to conclude that if two cars are on a freeway, and one is going 80 mph and other is going 75 mph, that an officer would pursue the more obvious and faster speeder. That being said, one could reason that with all the 80+mph speeders on California freeways, that being cited for under 80 is relatively rare, not unheard of, just not common. (Do not quote me, but having seen thousands of tickets in court, I might say something like seeing 22349(a) for under 75 mph is extremely rare.) One time I heard a judge say this about a 75 mph ticket in a 65 zone: “That’s the slowest speeding ticket I’ve seen issued on the 405 freeway.” On the other hand, if someone is cited for 89 mph, judges will make sarcastic comments like, “It’s the 91 speedway, watch out!” Regardless, officers have plenty of business if they only writing 80 mph and over.

(Make no mistake about it, the courts care a lot about collecting money. A government operation that fines people is a business which ever way you want to cut it. Granted, it serves the public good by keep the public safe through punishing and deterring crime. Regardless, the courts needs money to operate. Traffic tickets probably generate more money for the court than all other crimes put together. We can talk about this and conflicts of interest another time.)

To determine freeway speeding violations, the CHP uses a handful of different means. They use radar on their cars while parked or driving, radar or lidar guns held in their hands, visual estimations while standing still, or pacing while driving. This covers the most common means. There are other ways to determine speed but not all are legal, like a speed trap, and some are extremely uncommon, such as using a helicopter or airplane. City police are known to use helicopters, especially the bigger cities, like Anaheim and Los Angeles. However, aircraft are usually used for crimes, not speeding. By the way, airplanes are used to follow drug traffickers. But, we digress.

A pace is the most simple way to prosecute a speeder because all the CHP driver has to do is follow a speeder, like a pace car, hence the name. Pacing is really easy when the whole freeway is speeding. The officer usually picks out the fastest mover that he sees. The officer will then position himself at a set distance from the car. This requires visual estimation. However, it does not require an expert to testify about holding the same distance from a moving object using visual contact. It is the basic concept of parallax that all two-eyed persons use and trust every day. The officer merely testifies to the speed his car was going and that he held the same distance from the other car.

I have never heard an officer testify to less than a quarter mile pace; unless the car passed him when the officer was speeding at a set speed, i.e., no change in velocity of the officer’s car during the observation, or the pace was combined with some other speed determiner, like a visual estimation. Otherwise, the officer will invariably testify that he held a certain distance behind the speeder for a certain distance of driving. For example, the officer will testify that he held a 300 foot distance behind the speeding car for one mile. The defendant might say that he did not see any CHP behind him. Often times, the officer will say he was following from a different lane, not directly behind the car, e.g., officer in the #3 lane while the speeder was in the #1 lane. There are different scenarios, but it comes down to the officer’s credibility of being able to follow another car while visually keeping the same distance. It is not hard to do, even with other traffic.

However, sometimes these cases are dismissed at trial or found not guilty. One particular not guilty holding came from the officer not having a direct view of his speedometer. The officer was the passenger while another officer was driving. Since the officer was looking at the driver’s speedometer at an angle, the court determined that the officer could not accurately nor consistently determine the speed of the police cruiser. In contrast, the judge said, if the officer was the driver, then the speedometer is always directly in your vision and aligned to be read correctly.

Another time a not guilty resulted at trial was when the CHP officer did not have his calibration document present for his vehicle’s speedometer. However, another factor was really at play her. The judge was old and almost retired, and the defendant was old, past retirement, but respectable in presentation. The judge was clearly empathizing, as many cases with the same issue in front of the same judge were not dismissed. Yes, judges are people, too. And, they do things like this a lot. Well, a case dismissed is good regardless of why.

Some officers like to use radar on their car. This type of radar gives the highest speed reading of a set of approaching vehicles. So if one car is passing all other cars, or is alone on the road, the fastest driver gets the ticket. While the technology is not violator specific, it has been around for a long time and is widely accepted when coupled with an officer’s visual determination of which car was going the fastest. It is not uncommon for officers to testify that they were watching the speeder in their rearview mirror.

Radar guns are similar but have aiming devices. Some people read articles about radar guns and why they do not work and try to fight it. However, this is fruitless, as radar is widely acceptable as reliable, and, most errors, if any, go in favor of the speeder, not the officer. Go read Popular Mechanics or something similar to learn more about radar guns, but only for fun because it will not help you in court.

Laser and lidar guns are target specific technologies that require training by the officer. (Everything else above requires training, too.) However, on the freeway, so long as the officer checked that the gun was working, has proof that it was calibrated, and demonstrates that he or she used the gun correctly on the specific car it was targeted at, the court is happy to convict.

There are many issues that arise in speeding cases that go to documentation, credibility, hearsay, foundation, and so on, that can be challenged. The popular trend of having attorneys in court has had good results, but it has also kept the cops on their toes, leading to better preparation for court. Then there is the issue of discovery, and whether or not it was requested and whether the judge requires the prosecution to produce anything at all of it was not requested timely, in advance, by the defense, and so on. However, this is for another discussion.

In summary, speeding on the freeway is common but using prosecuted for higher speeds, over 79 mph. Proving some was speeding is easy for the officer when he has direct evidence through his own observations and court-trusted technologies, from speedometers to laser guns. Rule of thumb is to say under 75.

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