The Michigan Court of Appeals is overturning a drunk driving conviction from September of 2015.
Anthony Owen was pulled over for speeding and subsequently arrested for drunk driving. He was told he was going 43 mph in a 25 mph zone in the village of Saranac in Ionia County.
Ed Sternisha is the attorney who represented Owen through his case. He argued that the speed limit was actually 55 mph by default because there was no signage on the road in question.
The court agreed with Sternisha, saying in their opinion, “The record reflects that the deputy in this case admitted that he knew that the speed limit was not posted on the road for vehicles traveling south… The deputy also admitted that no traffic control device or sign told motorists traveling southbound on the road the speed limit a motorist had to observe. The record indicates that the deputy merely believed that the speed limit on the road was 25 miles per hour because 25-mile-per-hour speed limits were posted on some streets entering Saranac.”
The court says that Owen’s Fourth Amendment rights to protection from unlawful search and seizure were violated because he was not actually speeding, and that was the offense he was pulled over for. The evidence must therefore be suppressed, because the officer “lacked reasonable suspicion to justify the stop.”
The opinion also states, “Since 2006, under the Motor Vehicle Code, villages could not have blanket village-wide 25-mile-per hour speed limits within their boundaries.”
In 2006, Michigan passed a law amending the Motor Vehicle Code, which mandated towns and cities to set realistic speed limits for their roads based on actual travel speeds. Many towns and villages in Michigan, like Saranac, aren’t in compliance with this law, and still have speed limits.
Jim Walker is on the board of the National Motorists Association. He helped draft the 2006 legislation that altered the motor vehicle code and testified on behalf of Owen. He says simple traffic engineering can be used to set realistic and enforceable speed limits.
“You measure the free-flowing traffic that goes by, find the point at which 85 percent of the vehicles are at or below that number, round it to the nearest five, and that almost always creates the safest traffic flow.” He uses the example of an urban arterial road: “If 85 percent of the vehicles are going at 46 miles per hour or below, you have to set 45. It’s wrong to set 40 or 30 or 25.”
Both Walker and Sternisha say that one of the main reasons towns post speed limits lower than what is realistic is for the revenue that comes from speeding tickets.
“It’s a racket!” Walker says.
Sternisha says that motorists should be aware of the law, and should know the resources available to them in order to fight a speeding ticket.
“The average motorist can do a Freedom of Information Act, just a simple FOIA request to the county clerk, and ask for the traffic control order that established the speed limit on that stretch of road. If there is no traffic control order… those speed limits should not be enforced by the police.”
He says the court of appeals’ decision “really gives the average citizen their power back.”