Police Speed Enforcement from Aircraft in Pennsylvania

Written by Gregory Monte.

Pennsylvania is one of the many states to use aircraft for speed enforcement.  You can read the official State Police policy on this if you want to know the details of this program.

Apparently, this method of speed enforcement is not used that much anymore.  An article in The Morning Call (Road Warrior: Here’s a peek at how Pennsylvania State Police prioritize traffic enforcement) indicates that:

“It’s becoming increasingly rare for police to use aircraft to assist with speeding, and many states have abandoned the tactic altogether as too costly.”

So why am I even bothering to write on this topic?

Well, I happened to come across two Pennsylvania court cases which dealt with enforcement of speeding by aircraft.

Case #1 – The Potential for Injustice in Aircraft Surveillance is High

The first one goes way back to 1981 – Commonwealth v. LaPaglia, 22 Pa. D. & C. 3d 28 – Pa: Court of Common Pleas.  In an extremely “wordy” opinion, the judge in this case suggested that aircraft enforcement of speed was ineffective because …

“The task of observer hovering high in the air, to single out one car from a group traveling down a crowded highway, and then accurately to communicate his observations, the results of his surveillance, from the air to his earthbound ally, presents an identification and communication scenario fraught with potential for innocent miscarriage of justice. Much faith is necessarily placed upon the surveillant’s visual acuity and verbal agility. In the twinkling of an eye, he must precisely perceive and then accurately translate that visual perception into clear and unambiguous words. The description must be both sufficiently complete to identify the perpetrator as well as to exclude the innocent. Such description would necessarily require a mouthful. Any breakdown in this chain of vision, speech, hearing, and comprehension will tend inevitably to engender injustice.”

But I especially enjoyed the way he “waxed eloquent” about George Orwell and technological advancement in his commentary:

“In so holding, we expressly do not reach our conclusion from any visceral distaste that one might have for some Orwellian deus-ex-machina peering down upon the citizenry from above. Indeed, the history of law enforcement is rich with scientific and technological advances which have done much in the search for truth — not only to ensnare the guilty but also to exculpate the innocent. On the other hand, we should be wary to avoid technological advances that, under the appearance of scientific wizardry, instead inject potential for injustice.”

Case #2 – The Aircraft Standard of Proof is the Same

The second case is from the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania in 1989 – Com. v. Baslick, 567 A. 2d 671.  The court specifically singled out the previous case and, essentially, overruled it:

“We disagree [with Lapaglia] and see no reason for a stricter standard of proof in aerial observation speed cases … While, of course, credibility is an issue for the factfinder, we see nothing in the circumstances of these cases which would require that we adopt a more strict standard of proof or requirement of heightened scrutiny simply because the citation was issued as the result of aerial observation. To the extent that the LaPaglia decision requires a stricter standard of proof in cases where motor vehicle speeding prosecutions are based upon aerial observation, it is overruled.”

As I have indicated in numerous other blog posts, when it comes to traffic enforcement, Pennsylvania is usually known for protecting its citizens more than other states. 

A Police Officer Must be in Uniform to Issue a Speeding Ticket … in PA, at Least …

Speeding Tickets in PA – More Reasonable Than Many Other States.

Speed Traps – Alabama vs. Pennsylvania

NY vs. PA – Police Officer’s Testimony About Speed

Automated Speed Enforcement – It still sucks, but at least it is not arbitrary.

The California & Pennsylvania “Slow-Poke” Laws – A Brief Comparison.

Arial enforcement of speed limits is a clear exception to that general rule.

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