The importance of knowing the law

A Michigan case which has been pending for six years and came to an end last week is an excellent example of what can happen when there is a mistake made about the law.

It began in 2015 when the defendant Anthony Owen was stopped by an Ionia County deputy sheriff for driving 43 miles per hour on a street in the village of Saranac. There was no speed limit sign but the deputy mistakenly believed the speed limit was 25 miles per hour.

As a result of the stop he was charged and ultimately entered conditional guilty pleas to operating while visibly impaired and a weapons offense and allowed to appeal.

On appeal he claimed that there was no lawful basis for the stop because as a matter of law the speed limit on this street was actually 55 miles per hour.

Due to a number of procedural issues, the Michigan Court of Appeals didn’t issue its final opinion until July 23, 2019 in People v Owen.

It turned out that it was worth the wait for the defendant.

In reaching its decision, the court reviewed Michigan’s highway speed limits under the Motor Vehicle Code (MVC). It noted that there is a list of allowable speed limits ranging from 25 miles per hour up to 45 miles per hour in areas like the Village if they are posted.

However the Village had never adopted any of these speed limits and there were no speed limit signs on the subject street as the MVC required.

As a result, the maximum speed limit automatically became 55 miles per hour under Michigan’s “general speed law.”

The defendant was right.

The stop was declared to be unlawful even though the deputy honestly thought that the speed limit was lower.

The court said that law enforcement officers are required to know the law and here, although the deputy was not required to be perfect, his mistake of law was not one of a reasonable law enforcement officer.

The convictions were reversed and on Oct. 4, the United States Supreme Court rejected the prosecutor’s appeal.

This is a case with unique facts. However it does show the importance of knowing the law and confirms the legal maxim of “ignorance of the law is no excuse.”

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