Court of Appeals Overturns Drunk Driving Case Because Officer Didn’t Know Speeding Laws
In the case of People v. Owens, the Court of Appeals sided with a drunk driver when the officer wrongly pulled him over for speeding.
What Happened in the Case
Defendant Owns was convicted of operating while visibly impaired (drunk driving) and being a concealed pistol licensee in possession of a firearm while intoxicated.
The officer claimed Owens was speeding. Owens was pulled over for driving 43 miles per hour in an area the arresting officer believed was a 25 mile per hour area. The officer arrested Owens for drunk driving when Owens failed field sobriety tests and a preliminary breath test.
Once in court, Owens filed a motion challenging the officer’s stop of his car. He claimed the road he was driving on was really a 55 mph road, and not a 25 mph road.
Speeding Under the Motor Vehicle Code
The Michigan Motor Vehicle Code provides speed limits for all roads in Michigan. The Code specifies all speed limits for different roads, and those speed limits are in effect unless a town says otherwise or the road conditions make driving at certain speeds unsafe. For example, roads in a business district are 25 mph. Relevant to this case, the maximum speed on a highway is 55, unless otherwise posted.
Cities may choose to create their own speed limits, and obviously many do. To do so, cities must go through a legal process for creating the speed limit. To change the speed limit from what the Motor Vehicle Says, a city must make a public record of traffic control orders that establish defined speeds. Since 2016, the law additionally requires changes to speed limits by towns must be backed by a speed study or solid evidence.
The village of Saranac did not create any public record of established speed zones. Therefore, the road Owens drove on was a 55 mph road and not a 25 mph road. Essentially, the speed laws in Saranac are governed by the Motor Vehicle Code because Saranac never created a public record of speed laws through the proper legal channels.
The Officer’s Mistake
The law says police need a reason to pull someone over. Without a reason, a traffic stop is unconstitutional. Any evidence gained in the traffic stop cannot be used against the driver.
However, police officers can get away with pulling someone over for no reason if they provide a reason that offers a reasonable mistake of the law.
The prosecution in this case argued the officer made a reasonable mistake of the law when assuming the road Owens traveled on was 25 mph. This belief resulted from the fact that some streets in Saranac do have a 25 mph speed limit sign. The officer generalized this speed limit to the whole town when pulling Owens over.
The Court of Appeals was not buying that. The Court wrote, “Even the deputy in this case admitted that an officer enforcing a speed limit should know the speed limit. The record in this case, however, established that the deputy failed to know the basic Michigan law provided under the Motor Vehicle Code, the very law he was tasked to enforce…The deputy’s testimony does not reflect a reasonable interpretation of the Motor Vehicle Code or even a plausible understanding of the applicable law. The record indicates that he never considered the Motor Vehicle Code at all.”
The Court went on to say the deputy’s hunch that the entire village of Saranac should have been a 25 mph zone based on a few signs within the village is an unsupported belief. The Motor Vehicle Code removed blanket-wide town speed limits in 2006.
Sam Bernstein is a Criminal Defense Attorney focusing on DUI law.
ArborYpsi Law is located at 4158 Washtenaw Ave., Ann Arbor, MI 48108.