LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Kevin Curry wanted to plead guilty.
His case already had taken a twist. While fighting a ticket for going 93 miles per hour on Interstate 71 in Louisville, the Greensburg, Ky., man argued through his lawyer that Kentucky law doesn’t clearly define speed limits.
On September 19, a Jefferson District Court judge agreed and declared the speed limit sections of the law unconstitutional.
So when the case resumed the next day, Curry tried to admit that he’d violated the lone part of the statute that remained: Driving faster than what is “reasonable and prudent, having regard for the traffic and for the condition and use of the highway.”
But there was just one problem, his attorney, Greg Simms, said during a hearing. Lawmakers, “in their infinite wisdom,” hadn’t included a penalty for driving that way, he said.
That led a frustrated Judge Julie Kaelin to postpone the case until late October, giving lawyers more time to make their arguments before she decides how to proceed.
“We’re all in uncharted territory here,” Simms said in an interview last week. “It’s not an everyday occurrence that this happens.”
What began as a routine traffic case has put Kentucky’s longstanding speeding law under scrutiny, raising questions about what speed limits actually are and whether legislators need to make changes when they meet again in January.
Kaelin’s ruling doesn’t banish speed limits from Pikeville to Paducah; the order currently applies only to her courtroom.
“Therefore, in reality, today her ruling does not apply to any citizen accused of speeding,” Ron Aslam, a Louisville defense attorney, said in an email.
However, he and other lawyers expect the innovative argument to be tested in other courts.
“I am certain that defense attorneys throughout the state have been or will now be filing similar motions as the one filed before Judge Kaelin to see whether or not other district court judges rule as she did.”
WDRB News wasn’t able to immediately identify any such filings in other Kentucky courts.
Meanwhile, police agencies like Kentucky State Police and the Louisville Metro Police Department have indicated they’re continuing to enforce speeding the same as before. In St. Matthews, Police Chief Barry Wilkerson said it’s “business as usual” for his officers.
“We’re going to do what we need to do to slow them down to make it safe for everybody here,” he said.
Kentucky General Assembly members who spoke with WDRB News say they’re watching the case but haven’t seriously weighed legislative changes. Senate Transportation Committee chairman Ernie Harris said he would consider a bill addressing the law if state police or other agencies asked for it.
Sgt. Josh Lawson, a state police spokesman, said he wasn’t aware of any conversations with lawmakers about the speeding statute.
The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet is monitoring the case and is reviewing the law’s language, but is not involved in any efforts to address the law, spokeswoman Naitore Djigbenou said in an email.
What is the speed limit?
At the heart of Curry’s case is the ubiquitous speed limit sign. The white-and-black signs dot streets, highways and interstates across Kentucky.
Curry was charged with driving more than 26 miles over the speed limit when a Louisville Metro Police officer stopped him on October 5, 2018 on I-71 near Indian Hills, according to a citation that noted the area as a “55 mph zone.”
But attorney Simms argued in court documents that state law includes such “vague language” that “no reasonable person could read the law and understand what conduct is prohibited.”
Kentucky mandates speed limits of 65 miles per hour on interstates and parkways; 55 miles per hour on other state highways; and 35 miles per hour on roads in a business or residential district. The state transportation secretary can adjust those limits based on an official order.
State law also lets local governments set higher or lower speed limits through an ordinance.
In Curry’s case, Simms claimed it wasn’t possible to know what the proper speed was on the section of I-71. He said he wasn’t able to find a state order or local ordinance backing up the 55-mile-per hour sign on a road that by law is supposed to allow speeds 10 miles per hour greater.
Jefferson County Attorney Mike O’Connell’s office argued that the law wasn’t vague at all, or unclear. A driver could understand the law “merely by comprehending a large reflective sign, directly adjacent to the highway, literally written in black and white, consisting solely of the phrase ‘SPEED LIMIT 55.’”
Josh Abner, an O’Connell’s office, declined to comment for this story because the case is pending.
In her ruling, Kaelin wrote that it didn’t matter that “speed limit signs could be or should be enough, because the statute does not refer a motorist to such signs.” A day later, in court, she noted that laws in all of Kentucky’s bordering states include specific mentions of the signs.
Bradley Clark, a Lexington defense attorney who handles traffic cases, said he was initially surprised to see that Simms’ argument prevailed. “But ultimately the more I read about it the more I could see where that side was coming from,” he said.
“One would argue that the signs on the side of the road are the notice, but if the legislature didn’t make that so, then they didn’t make that so,” he said. “It’s important that they follow the rules just as we follow the rules.”
The case also raises other questions that haven’t been addressed. For example, Kentucky law also says the state transportation secretary can install “traffic control devices” for the safety of the public. Would speed limit signs be covered by this?
Elsewhere in the law, the state Department of Highways is required to adopt a manual of the devices. The department has done that with a federal manual that discusses speed limit signs in detail, although it notes that the posted speed limit is “determined by law or regulation and displayed on Speed Limit signs.”
For her part, Kaelin was expecting prosecutors to appeal her ruling.
“… So while I think I made the correct ruling, I am not by any means the final arbiter of that decision and I’m assuming the county intends to take this up (to a higher court), which is great,” she said. “We need clarity on this issue.”
The county attorney’s office indicated during the hearing that prosecutors did not want to appeal to a higher court and instead take the Curry case to trial, despite the judge’s ruling.
“I feel like I’m hearing from the county is, ‘We do not care about your order, we’re going to do what we want anyway,’” Kaelin said, according to a video of the hearing.
She ordered both sides to provide written arguments and be back in court on Oct. 31. At that point, Curry may simply be able to plead guilty with, as the law is currently written, no punishment. And prosecutors can argue they want a jury to decide the issue.
By ruling parts of the speeding law unconstitutional, Kaelin has addressed a problem with Kentucky law, said civil rights attorney Dan Canon, a law professor at the University of Louisville.
“I think it’s got the potential to do what a judicial opinion like this should do,” he said, “which is make the law more clear and less confusing to lawyers and lay people alike.”