The Insider's Guide to Speed Enforcement Pt. 1: A Gunslinger is Born
Is there anything the average motorist hates more than police radar? While some citizens see radar “guns” and those who wield them as a necessary evil– police surveillance that saves lives– most drivers view the technology as a “sin tax,” an ineffective safety device, a waste of police resources, an invasion of privacy and/or a major violation of the Constitutional prohibition against “indiscriminate search.” While the battle for and against police radar (and now laser) rages on, TTAC has invited me to discuss the technology and your legal rights. We begin with some deep background.
Back in the early 60’s, police measured driver’s speed via “S-band” radar. These early devices used a huge antenna mounted on a tripod. It printed a paper read out on a rolling sheet of paper, like a lie detector. The S-band radar unit was a cumbersome contraption that only worked in good weather. And keeping the analogue tubes running was a tricky business– never mind trying to get the waves to live at microwave frequencies. Although the system [eventually] offered its police practitioners a reasonable ROI, it was a major PITA.
With the advent of transistors, radar moved to the 10 Ghz “X-band.” New solid state devices assured greater frequency stability at higher frequencies. The antennas got smaller. For the first time, police could mount a radar device on their car– although they were still restricted to continuous transmission from a stationary position.
Early Escort radar detectors worked a treat, picking-up the X-band signal a mile or more before it had the strength to bounce back to its police handler. And there were few, if any, radar “falses” from door openers. The detection – detector arms race began.
The next advance on the police side: a 24 Ghz “K-band” device with a smaller antenna with a new mode: ”instant on.” This feature made the radar detector less useful (it still triggered when someone up ahead was zapped). K-band radar guns were very expensive when they first appeared– so the older X-band guns were also rigged for “instant on.”
The next advancement: moving mode. For the first time, a radar device could separate the primary reflection (ground speed) from the second reflection (target speed). (This development mystifies a lot of drivers, amazed that the cop “was coming from the opposite direction.”) With the smaller. squad car-borne K-band antenna, any police car was a potential "threat" to a speeding driver. The modern radar enforcement era was born.
Today’s state-of-the-art radar devices have moved still further up in frequency, to the 34-36 Ghz Ka-band. (The Ka band is much wider than X or K, making the radar detector’s job harder, as it’s really just a glorified scanner.) Police radar antennas have miniaturized to the point where they’re hand-held devices with soda can-sized apertures. The entire speed detection device is now small enough to permanently mount in a squad car; many police departments use front AND rear antennas.
Whereas the primitive radars of the 70’s could pick out target vs. ground speed as they were going in opposite directions, today’s radars can pick out a target going in the same direction as the patrol car. State laws vary in whether or not this mode has “judicial notice” (i.e. would be accepted in a Court with the usual minimal Police testimony). But the bottom line remains the same: a police car behind you or in front of you can now get a reading. This mode is less frequently used, but it’s increasing, as the older units are retired and new ones enter active duty.
Police radar devices are sold through a public bidding process at the State level. Your local law enforcement agencies often buy at the negotiated State Police price. Many agencies, though, do not. If your state does not have an “official” radar device, you are facing a variety of threats.
Here in New York, the State Police use a state-of-the-art Ka-band radar gun called (of course) the Stalker. Local agencies still have a lot of the Kustom Signals KR series K-band units; they have less money than the State and the units last a bit longer in regular use. Ye Olde X-band is mostly gone; the units have obsoleted out.
The newer radar units have variable power outputs, so that the officer can make the unit’s “zone of influence” smaller. Many of them allow the relevant law enforcement agency to lock out certain functions (e.g. the moving modes) if the law in their state does not support their use.
Fortunately, most police are not gadget geeks. They tend to run their radar guns in full power mode, in standard stationary or “instant on” modes. Still, there's never a shortage of sheep to shear. Speaking of which, next week’s installment will focus on countermeasures– sorry, effective ways to check your speed before you get a ticket.
[Casey W. Raskob, Esq. is a NY-based lawyer who runs speedlaw.net]
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