Speeding Tickets and the Use of Speed Traps in California


If you have been cited in Orange County for a violation of VC 22350, unsafe speed for prevailing conditions, there is a good chance that you will be able to challenge your ticket on the basis that it could be an illegal speed trap. The legal definition of a speed trap in California is not what most people believe. It is not simply an officer hiding somewhere with a radar gun on a particular stretch of roadway known to have lots of speeders. A speed trap in exists when a police officer uses a radar or lidar device to determine the speed on a non-local road, and that road has not been properly surveyed to determine the appropriate safe speed based on the actual driving behaviors of the majority of motorists.

The origination of speed traps came from a legislature that wanted to protect citizens from local police agencies setting artificially low speed limits and then citing an inordinate amount of motorists to generate revenue. Laws were enacted to ensure that speed limits were to be set at speeds slow enough to be safe but fast enough to facilitate the orderly movement of traffic. Most people are reasonable and drive at safe speeds, so the law requires that engineering and traffic surveys are performed to determine appropriate limits. The surveyor measures the speed of a hundred or so vehicles in each direction on a section of a street, and then determines the 85th percentile speed. This is the speed at which 85% of vehicles are traveling slower, and 15% faster. Based on that speed, the city engineer can round up or down to the next closest five mile per hour increment, and that is how the speed limit is determined.

Speed trap rules do not apply in several situations. If your ticket was on a “local” road, which is no more than 40 feet across, one lane in each direction, and less than a half mile of uninterrupted length, it cannot be a speed trap. The officer also must have used an electronic device for the rules to apply. Finally, the speed trap rules do not apply to a violation of a speed limit faster than 55 mph or more.

If the speed trap rules are applicable, at trial the officer must present proof of a valid engineering and traffic survey of the stretch of road on which you were cited. There is an automatic presumption that a speed trap exists, and the burden to prove that it is not a speed trap falls on the prosecution. The survey must be properly certified as accurate, have been performed within a specified period, and contain prevailing speeds as measured by traffic engineering measurements, accident records, and roadway conditions not readily apparent to the driver. If the survey is lacking in any of these areas, it is possible to object to the introduction of the survey and have it excluded from evidence. If the survey is not admitted into evidence, then by law the officer is incompetent to testify as a witness to any other element of the offense, and the case must be dismissed.

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