In most cases, Texas courts have found that a stop based on an officer’s visual estimation of speed alone is a reasonable basis for a traffic stop, the operator of the vehicles has exceeded posted speed limits in a manner that could reasonably be visually estimated.

Icke v. State, 36 S.W.3d 913, 914-16 (driver exceeding posted limit by twelve miles per hour (fifty-seven miles per hour in a fourty-four mile per hour zone)

Hesskew v. Tex. Dep’t of Pub. Safety, 144 S.W.3d 189, 190-91 (Tex. App. — Tyler 2004)(driver exceeding that posted speed limit by at least fifteen miles an hour (eighty miles per hour in a sixty-five mile per hour zone)); Tex. Dep’t of Pub. Safety v. Nielsen, 102 S.W.3d 313 (Tex. App. — Beaumont 2003)(driver exceeding the posted speed limit by ten to fifteen miles an hour (sixty-five to seventy miles per hour in a fifty-five miles per hour zone)

Thomas v. State, 2007 Tex. App. LEXIS 3586, 2007 WL 1404425 (Tex. App.– El Paso May 10, 2007)(memo. op.)(not designation for publication)(visual estimate supported by radar reading of sixty-two miles per hour in a fifty-five mile per hour zone)

Crook v. State, 2013 Tex. App. LEXIS 14272, 2013 WL 6164058 (Tex. App. –Houston [14th Dist.] Nov. 21, 2013) (memo. op.)(not designation for publication (visual estimate of speed approximately ten miles per hour in excess of a forty miles per hour speed limit and officer paced the vehicle to ascertain its speed).

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in United States v. Sowards, 690 F.3d 583 (4th Cir. 2012), analyzed the reasonableness of a traffic stop where the only basis of the stop is an officer’s visual estimate of speeding slightly in excess of the speed limit. While the opinion of the Fourth Circuit is not binding authority Texas, the Fourth Circuit provided a well-reasoned analyses of the problems inherent in traffic stops based on a police officer’s uncorroborated visual estimation of slight violations of the speed limit. See Sowards, 690 F.3d 583.

In Sowards, the defendant was stopped for traveling seventy-five miles per hour in a seventy mile per hour zone. Id. at 585. The stop was based only on the officers visual estimate of speed which was uncorroborated by radar, pacing the vehicle, or any other supporting facts. Id. at 585. Sowards moved to suppress the evidence obtained as a result of the stop on the basis that the officer lacked probable cause to stop his vehicle for speeding. Id. at 585.

The court in Sowards started their analyses of the reasonableness of the traffic stop with the question of whether the officer estimated that the vehicle was traveling in “significant excess” of the legal speed limit. Id. at 591. The court observed that “the speed differential—i.e., the percentage difference between the estimated speed and the legal speed limit—may itself provide sufficient ′indicia of reliability’ to support an officer’s probable cause determination.” Id. at 591. In cases where the speed of the vehicle is far in excess of the legal speed limit, the violation of the law is easily observable. Id.

In cases where the officer believes the vehicle to be “traveling in only slight excess of the legal speed limit, and particularly where the alleged violation is at a speed differential difficult for the naked eye to discern, an officer’s visual speed estimate requires additional indicia of reliability to support probable cause.” Id. The officer’s visual estimate could be “supported by radar, pacing methods, or other indicia of reliability that establish, in the totality of the circumstances, the reasonableness of the officer’s visual speed estimate.” Id. at 592. In the absence of some “factual circumstance that supports a reasonable belief that a traffic violation has occurred… an officer’s visual approximation that a vehicle is traveling in slight excess of the legal speed limit is a guess.” Id. at 593.

Furthermore, from a policy perspective, the Fourth Circuit notes that to find that it is reasonable for an officer to stop a vehicle for traveling only slightly in excess of the speed limit based on nothing more than an uncorroborated visual observation may “disincentivize the use of verifiable methods and technology.” Sowards, 690 F.3d at 592 fn. 9. For example, the arresting officer in Sowards actually “positioned his patrol car at an angle that rendered an accurate radar reading impossible.” Id. at 585.

Page updated May 2, 2014