A popular question that often comes when discussing probable cause for a traffic stop is can a police officer stop someone based only on a visual estimate of their speed?  In the Fourth Circuit that question appeared to be answered in the case of United States v. Sowards which held that the officer’s visual estimation that the defendant was slightly speeding was not enough to justify a traffic stop.  However in a case that was ruled on recently this holding has been modified.

In United States v. Mubdi the court held that a visual estimate of speeding between 63 and 65 m.p.h. in a 55 m.p.h. zone was enough.   The two cases were distinguished by saying that in Mubdi two Statesville police officers visually estimated the vehicle was speeding at about the same rate of speed. The two officers were in separate vehicles and observed the defendant driving on I-77.   Whereas in the Sowards case only one officer made a visual estimate of the defendant’s speed and noted that the officer in that case was “measurement-challenged.”

So what does this mean for us now?  With this new case the federal courts is likely to find that a police officer has probable cause to stop someone only based on a visual estimate of speeding if certain conditions are met.  The parameters established so far appear to be that one officer who “measurement challenged” may lack probable cause to make a stop but if two police officers make an almost identical estimate of the speed that would be enough.  We will have to see how this issue continues to play out in our courts to determine what the middle ground here is.

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