Spotlight: Radar Watchdog

Dale T. Smith


Do citizens have the right to employ warning systems that will alert them to police operation of clandestine electronic surveillance devices? What difference does it make if these law-enforcement devices are regarded by many experts to be less accurate than a polygraph test? Does our government have the right to forbid individuals from receiving certain radio frequencies?

These questions evoke various aspects of the controversy surrounding the use of police radar. With over 70,000 radar units at the disposal of police across the United States, these problems have become an irritant, if not a great concern, to America's drivers. One individual embroiled in the debate is Dale T. Smith. He received his bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from Harvard in 1965 and is the inventor of a police radar monitor called Fuzzbuster, which alerts a driver to the presence of a speed trap by detecting the radio signals emitted by police radar.

Smith first developed the monitor 11 years ago after he was ticketed for speeding in what he claims was a "classic" mistake—the inability of the radar to distinguish between his car and the one actually speeding. It was not until 1973, however, that Smith founded Electrolert Inc., of Troy, Ohio, which mass-produces Fuzz- busters. Retail sales of the product will reach $100 million this year. Smith is in the center of the storm of controversy surrounding the question, Should people be allowed to operate such monitoring devices?

In Smith's view, concern over the propriety of providing people with what they see as impunity from the law is misplaced. He seems to feel that this attitude ignores the citizen's side of the "law enforcement versus citizen" relationship. Fuzzbusters legitimately protect people from the misuse of radar. Moreover, citizens have a right to know when they are under government surveillance, and in this Smith sees no difference between wire tapping and radar. The government can't constitutionally forbid you from receiving certain radio signals. "If they outlaw receiving radar frequencies today," says Smith, "they could outlaw receiving Channel 7 tomorrow."

Electrolert has battled state legislation prohibiting police radar detectors and has provided legal assistance to those who have had their detectors confiscated by police. Electrolert has spent over $500,000 in lobbying successfully against bills in 32 states and in providing legal counsel or telexing lengthy legal briefs for cases involving confiscation of Fuzzbusters. It has only been necessary for the company to hire lobbyists in two states. Usually, Electrolert simply supplies information and possibly an expert witness to the appropriate legislative committees.

An Electrolert survey of over 1,000 people in Atlanta, Oklahoma City, and Hartford "found that owners and prospective owners differed from the national sample in one significant respect." According to company president Jim Pflaum, "They feel radar is being misused or overly used, and is inaccurate. They're no more prone to speed than are non-owners." Smith has been a very vocal critic of radars—to the point of "evangelism," say some. He has even described his attempt to publicize radar's defects as "self-annihilating"—it could eliminate the very need for Fuzzbusters. Yet when about 30 percent of all radar arrests have no valid basis, either due to drawbacks in the basic machine design or human error, the present law-enforcement system has a serious defect.

One problem with radar is the inability of police officers to narrowly define the area covered by the radar beam. A typical police radar produces a beam in the shape of a cone that extends 1,000 feet in length and expands to 225 feet in width. The vast area that the radar beam encompasses contributes to the misidentification of vehicles. Claims for the newest generation of police radar boast a recording range of 4,000 feet.

Beyond this problem, the radars are influenced by CB radio transmissions, and the computers for moving units can produce erroneous results if a police car changes speed or if a large truck is mistaken for the ground, so that the police car is taken to be moving slower than it actually is. Also, incorrectly pushing buttons on the radar will recall the number at which the unit is calibrated and not the actual speed of the vehicle. Smith has documented numerous horror stories of policemen's logs containing the "exact same speed" for most if not all of the "speeders" apprehended.

Electrolert was instrumental in a legal case decided in June 1978, in which the Virginia Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the state's law banning radar detectors. The court decision stated that one part of the statute, which reads that the state need not prove "that the device was in operation or operable" in order to obtain a conviction, was unconstitutional on the grounds that it violated an individual's right of due process. The justices also objected to the law's presumption of guilt. The removal of these presumptions resulted in the remainder of the law being unenforceable. Smith says, "There's no way a court can convict a motorist for using a Fuzzbuster. In order for a conviction to stand, a motorist would have to be caught, not only with his unit plugged in, but with the red light on the unit beeping as it went through a speed trap."

Smith's Electrolert regularly distributes well-written news releases about progress on the legislative and legal fronts concerning Fuzzbuster, as well as stories discussing police misuse of radar and their harassment of radar-detector owners. These stories include bizarre events such as police raiding the home of a physician at 4 A.M. to seize one monitor and arresting people for having in their possession a cardboard box resembling a Fuzzbuster.

Dale Smith, 35 years old, served for three years in the Air Force as a research scientist in the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright Patterson AFB, Dayton, Ohio. From 1968 until 1972, Smith manufactured speed radar units for police agencies.

Smith's sentiments on the Fuzzbuster are best summed up in his own words: "The Fuzzbuster adds to our storehouse of personal freedoms by granting the individual the right to radar parity. Over 70,000 radar units are in use today, and training for operators of the units varies from one to one hundred hours. The Fuzzbuster allows the motorist to avoid paying for someone else's mistake."