By Daniel Sherrier
A tri-national millionaire is spending a 48-hour sentence in Pamunkey Regional Jail following a conviction in Caroline Circuit Court Aug. 20 of reckless driving by speeding.
Charles Burnett III, a citizen of the United States, Canada and England who in 2009 broke a 103-year-old world record by driving a steam-powered vehicle at 140 miles per hour, was pulled over on Interstate 95 in Caroline County last year for driving at 103 mph.
At Caroline Circuit Court on Wednesday, Virginia State Police Trooper Sloan Page testified that at 10:55 p.m. on March 25, 2013, he was parked at the 111.5 mile marker facing the northbound lane of I-95 and spotted a Kia Sorento driving at a high rate of speed—at least 20 mph over the posted 70 mph speed limit, possibly 30 mph over, in the trooper’s initial estimate.
As the Sorento drove past, radar backed up Page’s visual assessment. The radar clocked the car at 103 mph as it entered the beam and 100 mph as it passed. No other vehicles were on the road at the time, and Page said there was no precipitation.
Page caught up with the Sorento, pulling it over at the 114.2 mile marker. He identified the driver as Burnett and told him that he was observed going 100 mph in a 70 mph zone, and Page asked, “What was the reason for your speed?”
Page said Burnett answered: “Trying to catch a flight from D.C. to New York.”
Page indicated that Burnett was compliant with his instructions and that it was a standard interaction.
Attorney Ed Riley represented Burnett and attempted to cast doubt on the accuracy of the radar unit and its reading.
Donald Sawicki was the sole witness for the defense. Sawicki is a radar engineer who largely makes his living testifying for defendants in such cases and authored “The Police Radar Handbook” in 2013.
“You will never see (false alarms) go to zero,” Sawicki said at the jury trial. “The technology is good (but is) subject to false alarms on occasion.”
Sawicki showed a video of radar equipment that was clearly getting the occasional incorrect reading along a highway. Vehicles, including a school bus, that were moving no faster than the rest of traffic were measured as going over 100 mph.
Sawicki claimed that a car’s wheels could distort the radar’s reading and that other electronics in the police vehicle could cause interference. Guardrails and trees could also interfere, he said.
Two witnesses for the prosecution, who like Sawicki were also considered experts on the radar equipment, both said that in their decades of working with radar they had never heard of a vehicle’s wheels distorting the readings.
One of them, Mark Wolverton, a regional sales manager for Kustom Signals, the manufacturer of the radar equipment the State Police uses, said it was “highly unlikely” the equipment would get as many incorrect readings as shown in the video if it was set up properly.
He also confirmed that Page’s radar unit has never been in need of repair, and he said that based on the trooper’s testimony of how the equipment was set up and tested, its reading should be accurate.
Page said that he typically spends 16 to 20 hours each week running radar, and he uses tuning forks to test the equipment at the beginning and end of every shift. “It’s something I do every day when I work. It doesn’t change,” he said.
The tuning forks themselves are tested and certified every six months, and Page showed the certification for the period spanning December 2012 to May 2013.
Page also testified that he tested his radar immediately after writing a summons to Burnett, and it was functioning properly.
Caroline County Commonwealth’s Attorney Tony Spencer, the prosecutor, asked Page about his training. Page confirmed that in the police academy he had passed a test in which he needed to visually estimate the speeds of 50 vehicles within 5 mph in both daytime and nighttime conditions.
Burnett did not testify, and he had pleaded not guilty to the charge of reckless driving by speeding.
In his closing remarks, Spencer told the seven-person jury that there was sufficient evidence to convict Burnett even without the radar, and he said the discussions about radar were diverting attention away from the main evidence.
Spencer referred to the March 25, 2013, interaction between Page and Burnett, in which Page asked him the reason for his speed. Spencer said, “Mr. Burnett didn’t say, ‘I wasn’t going 100.’ He said, ‘I have to catch a flight from DC to New York.’”
Spencer also advised the jury to discard Sawicki’s testimony as not believable. “He came here as an advocate,” Spencer said, rather than as an impartial expert witness, noting that Burnett was paying Sawicki to be there.
Riley said he doubted a Kia Sorento could even reach 100 mph, and he urged the jury to dismiss the radar evidence.
“All radar is subject to human error. Throw it out,” Riley said, adding that human senses are also fallible.
Riley said being pulled over by a police officer can be an intimidating experience in which the driver would not want to challenge the trooper’s assertions.
Riley misquoted the interaction between Page and Burnett as Page asking, “Where are you going?” rather than “What was the reason for your speed?” Spencer referenced the misquote in his rebuttal.
The jury reached a verdict within 15 minutes.
Reckless driving by speeding is a criminal offense, and the maximum punishment is a $2,500 fine and 12 months in jail.
Spencer told the jury that 12 months probably wasn’t necessary, but he advised including some jail time in the sentence.
“He put a lot of people in danger that night,” Spencer said. “Give him some taste of jail so he doesn’t do this again.”
The jury came back with a sentence of $2,500 and 48 hours of jail time.
Judge Patricia Kelly told Burnett to return to court at 10 a.m. Thursday, Aug. 21, for transport to Pamunkey Regional Jail.