Written by Gregory Monte.
I learned about this particular technicality the hard way. In this post, I cite several Pennsylvania court cases, but the hearsay technicality applies in all states.
The Background Info.
About ten years ago, I got a speeding ticket in Paramus, New Jersey. The two officers involved in my citation were working as a team, one was manning the radar gun and the other was assigned to pursue/pull over speeding vehicles. Needless to say, I pleaded “not guilty” and started working on my case.
The first time I showed up in court, the officers involved in my citation were not present. The prosecutor asked for, and was given, a continuance. That meant I had to show up again to defend myself.
As “luck” would have it, the same thing happened the second time I showed up in court. The prosecutor told the judge that the officer issuing the citation was not available, and so the judge granted yet another continuance.
Now, keep in mind that I live in Pennsylvania – Paramus, NJ is about a two-hour drive away. Because this was the second continuance allowed in my case, I was pretty pissed off that his “honor” agreed to another delay in the trial.
So, what did I do?
Thinking that I had an open and shut case (based on the work I did preparing for the trial), I actually told the judge that, in fairness to me, he should require that both officers show up the next time or else dismiss the case.
Why did I want both officers in court? Because in my research I found out information that the officer who had used the radar gun was not actually certified to do so. I was “chomping at the bit” to get my day in court in order teach these cops a lesson or two about giving a speeding ticket to a driver like me. They were not going to know what hit them after I was done.
Well, the judge was kind enough to grant my request. He agreed to send a letter to each of the officers and promised that, in all likelihood, the charge would be dismissed if both of them didn’t show up the next time
Hearsay and Speeding Tickets (And My Stupidity)
How stupid on my part.
Had I not been so cocky, specifically requesting that both officers appear in court, I might actually have gotten my ticket dismissed. As it turned out, I lost that case because both the witnessing officer AND the issuing officer were there to corroborate the “fact” that I was speeding.
Here is what you need to realize when you get a speeding ticket and there are two cops involved – the officer who actually witnessed the alleged speeding has to be the one to testify against you in court.
In my situation, if only the issuing officer had appeared, I would have won the case, because he didn’t actually take the radar reading. That means he would not have been able to swear under oath that I had exceeded the speed limit. All he could testify to was that he had written the citation. If he had testified that another officer (not present in the courtroom) had used the radar to determine my speed, I could have objected that this was hearsay. In a court of law, you cannot be convicted of speeding on hearsay evidence.
Court Case Example #1
The first court case I am going to use as an example is one I discussed in a blog post back in May: Can a Private Citizen Issue a Traffic Ticket? Watch out for the Rats!
I bring it up again because it also has something to tell us about hearsay in traffic ticket cases.
The case I cited in that post was Com. v. Dougherty, 679 A. 2d 779 – Pa: Superior Court 1996. A private citizen, Robert Gradle, witnessed Robert Docherty fail to stop at a stop sign in his neighborhood and notified a Springfield Township police officer of the infraction. Later, the officer filed a citation charging Mr. Docherty with a violation of the Motor Vehicle Code. When Mr. Gradle showed up in court but the police officer didn’t, Mr. Dougherty protested that the charge should be dropped because the officer needed to be there also. The judge disagreed:
“Appellant also contends that the absence of Officer Sadoff deprived him of the right to confront the witnesses against him. However, appellant fails to acknowledge the fact that Officer Sadoff could not have testified as a witness against appellant since he never observed appellant driving on the day of the incident underlying this case … Any testimony by Officer Sadoff concerning appellant’s alleged actions on the morning of August 5, 1994 would have been inadmissible hearsay.”
This case highlights what I said earlier – if a police officer does not actually witness the crime, anything he says about it is considered “inadmissible hearsay.”
Court Case Example #2
This second example was also discussed in a previous blog post just last week: Police Speed Enforcement from Aircraft in Pennsylvania.
In Commonwealth v. LaPaglia, 22 Pa. D. & C. 3d 28 – Pa: Court of Common Pleas, two officers were monitoring speed restrictions on the Pennsylvania Turnpike near Valley Forge, PA. One of the officers was in a helicopter timing cars as they passed between two white lines on the road, and the other officer was in his car waiting. When the officer in the air identified a speeding car, he radioed down to the terrestrial officer who then pursued, stopped and issued the ticket.
In this case, however, both officers did show up in court so the hearsay defense could not be used. The defendant, LaPaglia, eventually did win the case, but it was for another reason.
Court Case Example #3
The final case is an old one, but it highlights the hearsay defense quite well – HYMES LICENSE, 32 Pa. D. & C. 2d 161 – Pa: Court of Common Pleas 1963. Here is what the judge had to say:
“It is not disputed that he [Hymes] was arrested and charged with speeding at 55 miles per hour in a 40-mile zone … However, in order to prove the commission of this offense at our appeal hearing, the Commonwealth called only the State trooper who was the “pursuit officer” in the radar team. The member of the team who was the “meter reader”, and who actually determined appellant’s speed by looking at the radar instrument, was not called to testify. The “pursuit officer” did not clock appellant’s speed in any way, but merely halted him a short distance beyond the radar site. Thus, the only evidence of this speeding offense which is before us is incompetent, because it is founded upon hearsay.”
The judge couldn’t have expressed the hearsay technicality defense any more clearly – if there are two officers involved in a speeding ticket, the officer who actually witnessed the alleged offense has to be the one to testify.
Technicalities, Technicalities …
I know I probably sound like a broken record on the “technicality defense mantra,” but I can’t stress highly enough how important it is to identify a technicality in the law if you are going to go to court to contest a traffic citation. If all you are going to rely on is your personal testimony, you are most likely going to lose. If it is a choice between your testimony and that of a police officer, the judge will almost always believe the cop.