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DUI case reveals accuracy issue with LIDAR detector

The Chicago Sun-Times

SKOKIE, Ill. — A Skokie lawyer’s challenge of a speeding ticket that also led to his client being charged with DUI may finally provide the test case that will restore some sanity to how accused speeders are treated in Chicago’s Traffic Court.

George Livas says he intends to dispute evidence from the LIDAR speed detection equipment that Chicago Police used in stopping a Chicago man accused of driving 103 mph on a city expressway in November 2005.

Livas has asked a Traffic Court judge to hold what in legal circles is known as a “Frye hearing” -- during which the burden will be on prosecutors to prove that LIDAR technology is scientifically proven to be reliable.

Cheering him on -- but only to a point -- are both the Cook County state’s attorney and Chicago corporation counsel’s offices, which have been seeking exactly such a test case for the local court to establish the presumed validity of LIDAR speed calculations.

As I reported in Friday’s column, speeding tickets generated by police using LIDAR have been routinely dismissed in Traffic Court during the last year for anyone who comes to court to contest the case. Basically, they all get tossed out.

This actually started about two years ago when local defense attorneys began challenging speeding tickets on the basis of a Downstate appellate court opinion holding that LIDAR evidence should not be accepted in the courts until a Frye hearing was held. Such hearings are required whenever law enforcement is trying to introduce evidence based on new technology.

System doesn’t make sense now

At that point, the city’s Law Department wasn’t in any hurry to go through the trouble and expense of a Frye hearing -- with the result that some judges started throwing out the tickets.

As that outcome became more common, it was eventually determined the city would voluntarily dismiss the charges against anybody who brought a LIDAR speeding ticket to court.

The problem, of course, is that most people don’t know anything about this and just pay their tickets. Plus, the Chicago Police Department, which has equipped each of its districts with a LIDAR unit, keeps sending officers forth to write more speeding tickets. Also, you’ve got people hiring lawyers to defend them on speeding tickets, even though the lawyers know the cases will be dismissed without their involvement.

In short, it’s a system that doesn’t make a lot of sense. Either the tickets are valid or they’re not. And the law ought to be applied uniformly. In writing about this, I’m not interested in helping people beat a legitimate speeding ticket but in making sure the system treats everybody fairly.

The hangup has been this requirement for a Frye hearing. When push comes to shove, you see, very few people accused of speeding are going to want to go to the expense of fighting such a major legal battle.

That’s where Livas comes into the picture. His client is charged with DUI as well as speeding. The speeding ticket was the legal basis for the traffic stop. If Livas can knock out the legal underpinning for the stop, he can beat the DUI. Therefore, he has more interest than most in conducting a Frye hearing.

More expected to show up in court

“My plan is to challenge this at the Frye hearing and convince the judge this is pseudoscience,” Livas told me Friday.

Peter Goutos, supervising attorney for the state’s attorney’s traffic division, said his office has filed its own motion in the case seeking to have the Cook County judge who gets the case “take judicial notice” that LIDAR is already accepted in DuPage County courts and elsewhere around the country. DuPage County Judge Bruce Kelsey found the technology accurate and reliable in May 2007 after a Frye hearing.

If necessary, though, Goutos said his office is prepared to proceed with a Frye hearing for Cook County and has identified an expert witness for that purpose. Livas said he expects to bring in an expert for the defense as well.

LIDAR, which stands for light detection and ranging, isn’t really all that new. It has been patented for a couple of decades now, but has recently grown in acceptance by police departments around the country as it replaces older radar units. Police officers who use it will tell you they consider LIDAR more accurate than radar.

Livas’ case is back in Traffic Court on Nov. 18, but it could still be a while before it gets to the Frye hearing.

In the meantime, I’m expecting an influx of people willing to go to Traffic Court on their speeding tickets. I’m sure one of them will let me know if either the assistant corporation counsels or the judges change their approach.

Copyright 2009 Chicago Sun-Times