13 Watchdog: Michigan State Police enforcing 'unenforceable' speed limits

Internal e-mails obtained by the WZZM 13 Watchdog team from the Michigan State Police show troopers would enforce speed limits considered unenforceable by some inside the agency.

Over the past year, the 13 Watchdog team found multiple cases of questionable speed limits across West Michigan.

DIMONDALE, MICH. - Internal e-mails obtained by the WZZM 13 Watchdog team from the Michigan State Police show troopers would enforce speed limits considered unenforceable by some inside the agency.

After our investigation, the MSP's director defended her department's actions. Others said the MSP is saying one thing about speed limits but doing another in enforcing what's posted.

Investigation

Over the past year, our investigative team found case after case of speed limits that are not set properly by law.  Many of the local roads we surveyed in Kent, Ottawa and Muskegon counties have speed limits that are set under the 10th percentile. 

That means 90% or more of traffic is flowing above the speed limit. 

Executives at the Michigan State Police have encouraged local governments to set most of their speed limits at the 85th percentile speed of all drivers. Members of the agency's Traffic Services section literally wrote the book for local leaders to help them comply with the law, encouraging them to base speed limits on science and not some arbitrary number.

Yet, from the e-mails we obtained, it appears even after all that outreach work, the MSP's director is intent on enforcing posted signs whether speed limits have been studied or not.

The key case in our investigation centers on the Village of Saranac in Ionia County. That's where driver Anthony Owen was charged last September with operating while under the influence, possession of a firearm while intoxicated and concealed pistol license holder possessing a firearm while intoxicated. 

He was pulled over on Sept. 5, 2015 on Parsonage Road. 

Dash cam and body cam video we obtained show two Ionia County deputies in a car speeding after Owen who was clocked driving his truck 43 mph in a 25-mph zone.

During the traffic stop, the deputies asked Owen if he had been drinking and he confirmed he had.

"I've had 3 or 4," Owen said.

The video indicates the deputies found alcohol in the vehicle as well. The video shows deputies asking him again if he had been drinking while driving and he told them he hadn't.

"I wasn't drinking and driving," Owen said.

Earlier this year, Owen was exonerated on all charges because the traffic stop was deemed to be invalid because of an illegal speed limit.

RELATED: Village leaders reestablish speed limits even as judge exonerates drunk driver, citing illegal limit

MORE: Fighting traffic tickets: Why it's a losing battle in Grand Rapids court

Ionia County District Court Judge Raymond Voet declared the speed limit on Parsonage Road to be 55 mph, not 25 mph. The 55 mph speed limit is the default speed limit used in Michigan if no other speed limit has been established.  Because Owen was going 43 mph in a 55 mph zone, there was no reason for the deputies to stop him.

Ionia County Prosecutor Kyle Butler appealed Judge Voet's decision and lost in Ionia County Circuit Court.  Both judges who decided the case said Saranac didn't have any documentation to show how the speed limit was set.

Key witness

The key witness in the hearing to exonerate Owen was Lt. Gary Megge, an executive in the Michigan State Police. Lt. Megge was honored in 2006 with the Governor's Traffic Safety Advisory Commission Safety Award for his work on the state’s speed limits.
  
After receiving the award, Megge has pushed local governments to reevaluate their speed limits.

Megge testified in the Owen case: "It doesn't mean they (local governments) can do whatever they want, but they are responsible to establish safe and realistic and enforceable speed limits."

Megge was also quoted by the 13 Watchdog team for our story last November on speed limits in Grand Rapids. Megge told us during our investigation that some of the speed limits we surveyed were not legal and were not enforceable.

Months later, internal MSP e-mails we obtained show Megge was punished for speaking to us.
  
Megge wrote in an e-mail: "I have been essentially forbidden to talk to the press as a result of the article on GR speed limits that you sent me. The Chief of GR PD called to Col (Colonel) to ***** about me."

Current Grand Rapids Police Chief David Rahinsky didn't return a request for comment about what was said in that alleged conversation.

Megge's other internal e-mails also revealed another eye-opener, that commanders at local MSP posts around the state have been told to enforce speed limits even if the MSP's traffic services division considers those limits illegal and unenforceable.

One example is Owen's stop on Parsonage Road in Saranac.
  
An internal e-mail we obtained shows MSP's post commander Kevin Sweeney who serves Ionia County wrote a message to local officials.

Sweeney wrote: "We don't normally perform patrols in the village limits of Saranac, but if the troops did clock a speeder driving over the posted speed limit they would write them a ticket and/or enforce as they normally would (maybe a verbal warning)."

Reaction  

So we wanted to know why on one hand the MSP would provide testimony that proved a speed limit was illegal on behalf of a drunk driver. 

Yet, on the other hand, the MSP potentially could write tickets to people for speeding on the same street. 

If the ticket was contested by the driver in court, a Michigan State Police trooper would potentially be put in the position of providing contradictory testimony.

Col. Kriste Kibbey Etue is the MSP's director and denies there's a problem.

"I don't think there's trouble," Etue said. "When you look at speed limits, it's an important issue to talk about and we base it on sound science and engineering. But, there are other variables we have to consider as well."

Etue said the MSP is intent on enforcing the posted speed limits.

"I don't think we're saying one thing and doing another," Etue said. "If it's posted one way troopers will enforce the law."

There are no questions about interstate speed limits in Michigan. There is a legislatively set 70 mph speed limit on freeways and a 55 mph general speed limit. Both are actively enforced by the MSP. Most of the speed limits at issue are on city and township streets where local governments have the ability to set the zones and the MSP has the ability to patrol. 

Jim Walker from the National Motorists Association says it's up to the MSP's management to set the agenda and at the same time be fair to everybody.

"It's not the individual officer's fault that the posted speed limit is wrong," Walker said.  "It's not even the individual officer's fault that the posted limit is illegal as it is in many places around this state."

Walker said ultimately the MSP needs to keep encouraging awareness for 85th percentile speeds.

"There's political pressure coming from somewhere and I don't know where it's coming from to do the wrong things and it's not proper," Walker said.

Those who work in traffic law say the legislature and local governments need to work to fix all speed limits so the police and drivers aren't in this position. Noted personal injury attorney Mark Bernstein says the lack of legal speed limits can hurt anybody.

"If somebody is going above the posted speed limit, it's a piece of evidence to show they were driving recklessly or negligently," Bernstein said.  "If that posted speed limit sign is meaningless then many other problems start to ricochet through our cases as a result of that."

Where it stands now

Critics of local governments say it's been 10 years since the law has changed, and it's time to put away revenue opportunities from tickets to make sure limits stand up if challenged. Some communities in our area including Wyoming, Kentwood, Walker and Grandville have already changed some speed limits to comply with the 2006 law.

Other governments have refused to study their streets and have told us over the past year they don't believe the state government should be telling them how fast their traffic can go. Grand Rapids is intent on using a carve-out of the law that allows the entire city to have 25 mph zones "within the boundaries of land platted under the land division act".

That carve-out could soon be eliminated if the Michigan Senate passes House-approved legislation to clarify the rules.

Some in city governments have also said the state is illegally forcing an unfunded mandate on them to study their streets.

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