From the December 2017 issue
A Good Thing Gone
Rudy Stanko, a man of many court battles, has had only one that matters to driving enthusiasts. And his win is our loss. Stanko is the man who challenged Montana’s “reasonable and prudent” speed law, which stood between 1955 and 1974 and again between 1995 and 1999. It was Stanko’s case that gave the Montana legislature reason to impose a highway speed limit.
In March 1996, Stanko was ticketed for traveling 85 mph on Montana State Highway 200. He contested the charge in justice and district courts and was convicted by a jury twice. His second appeal landed the case in the Montana Supreme Court in December 1998. That court, in a four-to-three ruling, reversed the district court’s judgment. It called the “reasonable and prudent” clause vague on the grounds that it “impermissibly delegates basic policy matters to policemen, judges, and juries for resolution on an ad hoc and subjective basis . . . ” Neither the citing officer nor the attorney general at the time were able to specify a speed that would have been safe at the location where Stanko was stopped. In its finding, the court also stated that the “reasonable and prudent” clause, because of its vagueness, denied defendants due process. It was a shallow victory.
Stanko was never one to be intimidated by the law. His interaction with the courts, both before this case and since, has been prolific. He was found guilty in 1984 of violations of the Federal Meat Inspection Act, a crime for which he was sentenced to six years in prison and fined $70,000. He was also convicted in 2006 of being a prohibited person in possession of firearms and ammunition.
But in Montana, had he opted to pay the $70 fine, he could have made the ticket go away without the violation being recorded on his driving record. And we might still have one state without a numerical speed limit.
Big Bang to 1974
Trilobites blaze across the continental drift for eons before oceans turn to highways that man promptly ruins with speed limits. Only one state, Montana, is left unspoiled with no daytime speed limit. At night, speeds are restricted to 65 mph on interstate highways and 55 mph on two-lanes.
President Richard Nixon signs the Emergency Energy Highway Conservation Act into law. It effectively enacts a 55-mph national speed limit by threatening to kill funding for highways to states not in compliance. Montana meets the letter of the law by fining violators $5 for “an unnecessary waste of a natural resource.” But, in spirit, Montana is telling the feds to shove it.
Congress allows states to raise the speed limit to 65 mph on rural interstate highways.
President Clinton signs the National Highway System Designation Act of 1995 into law, repealing Nixon’s speed limit and eliminating the highway funding penalty. Montana reverts to its original law, which states that drivers shall operate vehicles “ . . . at a rate of speed no greater than is reasonable and prudent.” Violations are issued at officers’ discretion.
The Supreme Court of Montana, upon hearing the case of Rudy Stanko, decides that the state’s “reasonable and prudent” law is unconstitutionally vague and doesn’t give drivers fair notice of what speed is fast enough to be illegal.
Montana’s legislature sets the state’s daytime speed limit at 75 mph.
Montana increases its speed limit to 80 mph on the interstate for both day and night.