Officers test laser speed guns to bolster cases

See more photos of The Virginia State Police testing laser speed detection devices here.

By Dena Potter
The Associated Press

BLACKSTONE, Va. — Police officers took aim this week at vehicles zipping down a runway in tests meant to convince judges that laser speed guns - increasingly popular among law enforcement - are as accurate as their radar cousins.

Through three days at the Virginia National Guard's Fort Pickett, about an hour southwest of Richmond, the contraptions screeched and whined as the officers zeroed in on their targets - a variety of vehicles including, cars, trucks, a large van and motorcycles.

"Get ready. Get ready. And, lock," a voice rang out over the radio.

The officers took turns revealing the speeds their devices recorded - whether it be a laser gun, radar, time-distance measure or other methods - as an officer with a clipboard wrote them down.

Officer David Branch, of the Virginia State Police, tracks targets. (AP Photo)

Sometimes, they all matched. Other times, one or two was off by a mile an hour.

It wasn't highly scientific, but that was part of the idea, said master police officer John Lake of the Fairfax County Police Department, who helped coordinate the testing.

"We didn't want a rocket scientist with a Ph.D. out here doing it," he said.

Instead, organizers wanted officers who use the devices to conduct the tests.

At least a dozen courts from New Jersey to Hawaii have taken what is referred to as judicial notice, or general acceptance, of laser speed guns. But some prosecutors and judges still aren't sold on the accuracy of the hand-held devices.

The officers - about 20 of them from Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina and South Carolina - hope their tests will change doubters' minds.

"Everybody that uses it loves it," said Virginia State Police Sgt. Ralph Cofer, who also helped organize the event. "So we want to make sure that there's some testing done to ensure that when the courts have a question, there's something available for them to look at and then hopefully convince them that ... it is accurate."

Laser guns have been used by officers to detect speed for nearly two decades. Officers look through a scope on the laser gun and can pinpoint an exact vehicle, whereas radar spreads over a wide area and the officer must determine which vehicle is doing the projected speed.

The question is not about the technology, but whether lasers can be accurate when held in hand.

In April, the Washington Superior Court ruled their use was admissible as long as certain conditions were met, including daily checks and officer training.

Around the same time, an Ohio appeals court threw out a challenge because no cases in that jurisdiction had ruled on the scientific accuracy of laser devices.

New Jersey suspended the use of lasers from 1996 to 1998 while tests were done to prove to a judge they were accurate if used correctly.

Northern Virginia attorney Alex Gordon said he has negotiated lesser punishments for clients by questioning whether human error could cause a false reading.

"It depends upon the hands of the person you put it in," Gordon said. "You could get the guy that's the best shot in patrol school or the guy that's the worst shot."

He said it's important that judges in Virginia consider laser readings on a case-by-case basis instead of granting judicial notice because driving 20 miles per hour over the speed limit could land motorists in jail.

"We'd like to think that the prosecutors here and the judges here know that if we're forced to go to court that we're going to poke every possible hole in the cases," Gordon said.

There have been only a handful of studies on laser guns, and none in the past decade. Tests generally found that they were accurate to within 1 mile per hour of other methods.

"If the operator has been well trained and he or she pays attention to target selectivity, target acquisition and those kinds of things ... then the laser is as accurate as any radar unit ever was," said Bob Jacob, director of the Institute of Police Technology and Management at the University of North Florida, which performed the most cited study in 1994.

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