By Gary Biller, NMA President
At the urging of the late motorists’ advocate extraordinaire, Jim Walker, the NMA provided grant support for the defense of a Michigan man pulled over for driving over the speed limit in 2015. This wasn’t your typical speeding case, as illustrated by final closure earlier this month when the state Supreme Court declined to take up an appeal from prosecutors.
The facts of the case: Two Saranac officers stopped Anthony Owen for driving 43 mph in an unposted speed zone. Although Owen had not exhibited any signs of impaired driving, he was asked if he had been drinking. He acknowledged “three or four” drinks but denied driving drunk. After roadside sobriety tests, the officers wrote Owen up for suspicion of drinking and driving. During the stop, Owen volunteered that, along with a concealed carry permit, he had a registered handgun in the car. The charges included possessing a firearm while being intoxicated.
The central question of the case was whether convictions arising from traffic stops based on ignorance of traffic law should be upheld. The misunderstanding wasn’t Owen’s, but rather the officers’ who believed the village had a blanket 25 mph speed limit. The street was actually subject to a default limit of 55 mph per state statute. If the reason for the traffic stop wasn’t warranted, were the subsequent DUI and firearm possession charges lawful?
In 2006, Michigan passed Public Act 85, which required municipalities to conduct speed studies to justify posted limits. Many had been set previously by local officials without any engineering justification. Years after PA 85 went into effect, several of those same localities ignored the law and kept postings artificially low. That led to situations like Saranac, where enforcing a 25 mph limit was illegal without proper engineering support.
Walker testified at Owen’s original trial, noting that PA 85 required local governments to establish speed limits based on science and not some arbitrary method. He added, “It’s long past time that cities and counties can defy the law. We are supposed to be a society under the rule of law. That means the government has to follow it just as much as the citizens.”
Owen was initially exonerated in the courts, but the Ionia County prosecuting attorney successfully appealed and convicted Owen on impaired driving. The Michigan Court of Appeals later determined that the traffic stop was unlawful because of the mistaken belief that the speed limit was 25 rather than 55 mph, which effectively suppressed the evidence obtained during the Owen traffic stop. The prosecutor again appealed, resulting in the placement of the recent Fourth Amendment unreasonable-search-and-seizure case on the state Supreme Court’s docket.
The Court, by a 4-to-3 order, declined to hear the appeal, thereby upholding the Court of Appeals decision in Owen’s favor. The threat averted–for the time being anyway–is that traffic stops and convictions based on a mistaken understanding or total ignorance of the law cannot hold up. The startling fact is that the more uninformed the enforcement officer, the greater his power, and the more diminished the constitutional rights of drivers become.
The bad faith exhibited in the Owen case was not by the officers who made the traffic stop but by the Village, which subverted state law by allowing imaginary speed limits to be enforced.