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Police Blotter: GPS used to fight speeding ticket

Ohio man uses GPS defense to try to beat 84 mph speeding ticket on Interstate 75, but appeals court doesn't buy it.

An Ohio man is trying to beat a speeding ticket through an unusual defense: claiming that his cell phone's GPS records show he was driving under the speed limit.

Jason Barnes received two points on his license and a $35 fine for allegedly driving 84 mph in a 65 mph portion of Interstate 75 in March 2009. But he says that his employer uses GPS tracking on his Verizon Wireless phone to detect speed limit violations--and those logs prove he wasn't speeding.

So far, Barnes hasn't had much luck. An Ohio appeals court ruled last Monday that there was not enough evidence about how Verizon Wireless GPS alerts worked to toss out the speeding ticket.

"We find that the credible evidence clearly supports the trial court's judgment that Barnes was traveling in excess of 65 miles per hour on Interstate 75," Judge Stephen Shaw wrote on behalf of the three-judge panel. "We cannot find that the trial court, acting as the factfinder in this case, clearly lost its way and created such a manifest miscarriage of justice that the conviction must be reversed."

The panel gave more weight to the prosecution's evidence, which included police in an Ohio State Highway Patrol airplane saying they calculated how fast Barnes was driving (no radar gun was used). Barnes claims the logs showed he was traveling at 50 mph, saying the relatively slow speed was because of heavy truck traffic on I-75 at the time.

"Barnes presented no evidence from a person with personal knowledge regarding how the GPS calculates speed, whether there is any type of calibration of the equipment used to detect speed, whether the methods employed by his particular company to detect speed are scientifically reliable, or the accuracy of the GPS' speed detection," the panel said.

It's possible, in other words, that the case could have turned out differently if Barnes had hired an attorney and taken additional steps to demonstrate how Verizon Wireless' GPS tracking worked.

That's happened before. In 2007, an Australian man successfully used GPS data downloaded from his car to show that he was traveling at or below the speed limit. The speeding ticket was eventually thrown out, as was one in England.

And a spat erupted two years ago in California's Sonoma County when a teenager received a ticket for allegedly going 62 mph in a 45 mph zone. His parents had installed a GPS tracker to monitor whenever he drove faster than 70 mph. Sonoma County won, but spent tens of thousands of dollars in the process.

As more companies turn to GPS tracking to keep tabs on their employees, the GPS defense is likely to become more popular. A company called Wireless Matrix sells FleetOutlook, which uses AT&T, Verizon Wireless, and Sprint to transmit data that can be output in XML form. Fleetilla's system allows speeding alerts to be configured and can detect unauthorized after-hours vehicle usage.

Excerpts from the Ohio appeals court's ruling:

The pilot testified that in Barnes' case, on the day in question, he first observed a white vehicle, later determined to be driven by Barnes, halfway through the first marked quarter-mile section. As this vehicle entered the second quarter-mile section, meaning the moment the front bumper/grill portion of the white vehicle met the second white epoxy mat, he began timing the vehicle with his two stop watches. At the end of the second section, the pilot noted that 10.68 seconds had elapsed, giving him a speed of 84 miles per hour. He also timed the vehicle through the third and fourth quarters, ascertaining the elapsed time at 10.66 seconds and 11.61 seconds, respectively, giving him speeds of eighty-four miles per hour for the third quarter and seventy-seven miles per hour for the fourth quarter. The pilot also testified that he visually observed that Barnes' vehicle was traveling in excess of 65 miles per hour. He further testified that the traffic was light to moderate and that there were no other similar vehicles in the area, specifically no white vehicles with the exception of the OSHP cruisers that were assisting him.

Barnes testified that his speed was detected through his Verizon Wireless cellular phone. He testified that his employer utilizes a GPS program to detect the location and speed of its employees when traveling through their cellular phones and that this program actually sends alerts to his employer if one of its employees is speeding. As previously noted, he submitted downloaded documents regarding his speed and location when the troopers stopped him on March 17, 2009. These documents reflected a rate of speed of 50 miles per hour at the time the troopers purported that he was traveling at 84 miles per hour. However, Barnes did not have an independent recollection of his speed at that time. In addition, Barnes testified that the GPS provided the average of his speed over a two-minute time frame. In other words, the GPS did not give his specific speed at a specific time, but an average speed over two minutes.