Ticket trend down, crashes up
Defense questions whether drag sled was best tool to calculate speed in accident
State records show South Floridians got into more crashes in the past five years, but fewer of us are getting pulled over for tickets.
In a crash that killed a popular college soccer player from north Broward last year, cops say the car that hit him was going at least 89 mph.
But that estimate has touched off a unique criminal court battle.
The defense for the 26-year-old driver charged with vehicular houltimately micide is challenging the method used by the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s office to determine the speed during a reconstruction of the accident.
It’s an argument some industry experts say is long overdue — and it raises the questions of whether cops are using the best tool to calculate speed and if people are being wrongfully convicted as a result.
Also, the outcome of this case could affect prosecutions of drivers across Florida.
That is, if an appellate court one day agrees with the defense here that the long established way of determining speed after a crash — an instrument called a drag sled — is scientifically unreliable.
So far, no higher courts in the state have examined this issue. And it appears to have been reviewed in just a few other places in the country. Courts in Texas and Vermont have upheld convictions in deadly crashes where defendants have attacked drag sleds.
“People should not be convicted of criminal offenses based on speculative or junk science,” defense attorney Greg Rosenfeld wrote in the pending Palm Beach County case.
At a hearing set for Sept. 20, he’ll ask the judge to throw out the speed estimate used to charge his client, Kevin Brown of West Palm Beach, in the Feb. 3, 2017 death of Eric Tarmey, 23, of Lighthouse Point.
Prosecutors say Brown was driving his 2010 Nissan Maxima northbound on Military Trail at more than twice the posted 45 mph speed limit. They say Brown zoomed around a car in front of him, and then at 9:39 p.m., slammed into the passenger side of Tarmey’s 2010 Volkswagen GTI, killing Tarmey instantly.
Tarmey had been in the southbound lanes and was making a left turn to head east in the entrance of Keiser University, where he studied sports management and played soccer. He lived off-campus but was on his way to visit friends, said his father Ed Tarmey, retired fire marshal for the city of Dania Beach.
“The car was hit so hard that Eric’s skull was fractured in four or five places,” he said of the injuries to
the youngest of his three sons.
Tarmey says he has no doubt Brown was driving recklessly, despite the defense’s objection to the speed calculation. He said Brown is not accused of driving impaired; the man’s blood was not tested that night.
The victim’s family wants Brown, if he stands trial, to be convicted and sentenced to the maximum possible punishment of 15 years in prison.
“We would like to see him get the full extent the law would provide,” Tarmey told the South Florida Sun Sentinel.
Brown’s lawyer said the case is a tragic accident where the speed has been wrongly exaggerated.
Brown, who works at a bank, told the investigator that he was going, “truthfully around 65, 70” and slammed on his brakes, but couldn’t avoid the car turning in front of him.
A typical way that investigators find out speed on impact is tapping into a car’s computer system, and checking a “black box” similar in nature to those on airplanes. But the box in Brown’s Maxima apparently was destroyed.
Police departments across the state and the country also use drag sleds, which resemble a tire cut in half with weights. It’s pulled across a road to obtain the amount of friction existing between a moving vehicle and the ground.
Engineering formulas are then used to come up with the speed of a car that was in a crash.
Another method used by the Palm Beach County Sheriff ’s Office, as well as agencies elsewhere, is a tool called an accelerometer.
This is a device placed in a test car driven by an accident investigator to check the rate in which a car slows while skidding to a stop.
Investigator Robert Stephan, who worked on the Brown case, has said he decided it “wasn’t safe” to use an accelerometer based on the surroundings at the crash Eric Tarmey, of Lighthouse Point, died when his Volkswagen GTI was hit by a Nissan Maxima driven by Kevin Brown, of West Palm Beach.
“I find that skidding a car over the shoulder of the roadway through the dirt toward trees at 35 miles per hour would be unsafe,” he said in deposition testimony.
Stephan said he used a drag sled to determine Brown’s speed, and was “comfortable saying that the actual speed of the car was 90 miles per hour or faster.”
In her response to the defense attack on Stephan’s findings, Assistant State Attorney Laura Laurie wrote that he should be permitted to testify before a jury.
“The use of drag sleds has been an accepted practice within the field of crash reconstruction for a long time,” she wrote last week.
“In this case, the State will elicit testimony both from law enforcement as well as a professional engineer who all maintain that when used properly, a drag sled is a reliable tool for accident reconstruction,” Laurie explained.
But the defense has asked Circuit Judge Cheryl Caracuzzo to consider opinions from drag sled opponents, namely the Society of Automotive Engineers International, and the Northwestern University Center for Public Safety.
These groups favor accelerometers or braking distance tests, while contending that drag sleds have proven to be unreliable.
“The results of drag sleds are basically all over the place and you basically can’t rely on it,” said Roger Barrette, who teaches crash investigation and reconstruction courses at Northwestern and co-owns an Illinois consulting firm.
In the Brown case, the defense is bringing in two accident reconstruction experts
to bash drag sleds. One of them is Aaron Moss of Miami, who said he’s surprised the courts in Florida and elsewhere haven’t put a stop to the practice.
“If you are using an unscientific process, it should always be challenged,” Moss said.
Defense attorney Rosenfeld says: “In this case, Investigator Stephan chose to use an outdated, untested and unaccepted method — the drag sled.”
The prosecutor, however, argues Stephan simply conducted a “proper mathematical reconstruction to determine a speed of the Defendant’s vehicle at the time of impact.”
What’s more, she will call witnesses who said they observed Brown traveling at a very high speed before hitting Tarmey’s car.
Tarmey is remembered fondly.
Cardinal Gibbons High in Fort Lauderdale has established a $3,000 scholarship to honor the memory of the student who graduated in the class of 2011.
“Eric was an energetic, enthusiastic young man with a passion for soccer,” the school’s website reads. “He almost always had a smile on his face, counted almost everyone as a friend, and maintained a solid B average.”
Gabe Hughes, one of Tarmey’s longtime friends, said it’s still hard to believe that someone with so much energy and passion is gone.
“It seemed like he lived every day like it was his last,” said Hughes, 24. “He cherished every moment.”
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