But that likely won't help most drivers stopped for speeding over a 15-month period.

Published October 13, 2006

CRYSTAL RIVER - For more than 15 months, Crystal River police officers made traffic stops and issued citations using two laser devices that weren't set properly to measure accurate speeds.

The problem jeopardizes the department's ability to prove an unknown number of tickets issued between November 2004 and February 2006.

County Judge Mark Yerman dismissed speeding charges against one Crystal River man who challenged the ticket on Feb. 10, but the issue did not come to light until a subsequent court hearing earlier this week.

Police Chief Steve Burch acknowledged the deficient laser speed detection devices for the first time Thursday, saying it was a result of a new rule change in November 2004 and a "miscommunication between me and the sergeants."

"For some reason, they assured me they were compliant, but they weren't," he said.

Burch said the department is now in compliance with the new state rules that changed the distance necessary to standardize the devices before and after each use.

The discovery of the faulty speed guns is likely little help for the majority of the motorists stopped by Crystal River officers between November 2004 and February 2006 because the cases were resolved after they paid their fines.

Still, Bill Grant, an Inverness attorney who successfully challenged the laser devices in court, said the damage can be corrected.

He believes the police department should have notified the people ticketed. "They should dismiss them all," Grant said. "It's inconvenient and embarrassing to the city, but they need to step up to the plate."

As for those who already paid, Grant said a judge could set the charges aside in the interest of justice, or those ticketed could sue the police department in civil court for wrongful prosecution.

Burch downplayed the scope of the problem, noting that not every officer has a laser device and the equipment is not used every day.

"It's not that we are relying on an illegal device, as Mr. Grant wants to call it," the police chief said. "The probable cause for the traffic stop was there. All the laser and the radar do is quantify and confirm the officers' estimate of the speed and establish (that the evidence) be brought into court."

Burch said he first learned of the laser devices' problem after the Feb. 10 court hearing and immediately pulled them out of service. He rejected the notion that he should have done more to right the wrong.

"A lot of those tickets have already been dealt with," Burch said. "The reality is, the person was speeding."

Burch said he has no idea how many tickets were issued or how to notify those affected. "It would be almost impossible (to know)," he said. "I don't know how many certified laser operators there are because they share the device."

Grant said the chief's assertion isn't entirely accurate because state rules require documentation in a logbook when laser speed guns are used. He thinks there could be dozens, if not hundreds, of citations at issue.

Both also debate the ultimate impact of the court's earlier finding that the laser devices aren't viable as evidence in court. Burch believes the traffic stops and related charges, such as possession of illegal drugs or weapons, are still valid. "In my opinion ... the officers are acting in good faith, and the probable cause was there," he said.

Before using the laser to measure speed, Burch said, officers must estimate the speed visually and the laser must be accurate to within plus or minus two miles per hour.

Grant believes there are grounds for challenging the stops because there was no probable cause for the stop without the laser evidence. Visual estimates of speed, he said, "it's almost always denied."