A short section of Interstate 90 near Box Elder has a reputation as a speed trap, with frequent traffic stops made by officers who sit in the median of the rural highway where the speed limit changes from 75 to 65 mph.
Drivers have been stopped by highway patrol troopers for going as little as three miles over the 65 mph limit, and some have ended up in prison after they were found with drugs, according to local defense attorneys.
The nature of the highway there may encourage speeding, as west-bound traffic leaves the 75 mph zone as it enters Rapid City, and eastbound drivers feel as though they can open it up after passing through the more-congested metro area.
But it now appears that the speed limit may have been wrong on part of that road, and technically should have been 75 mph all along. State officials acknowledge that the final 1.3 miles of the 65 mph zone that starts west of Rapid City and ends less than a half mile east of Exit 67 was actually a 75-mph zone. Rapid City defense attorney Patrick Duffy said the stretch had been improperly signed and enforced as a 65 mph zone.
Attorneys say it is hard to say specifically if any of those arrested for transporting or possessing drugs were pulled over for speeding in that 1.3-mile area, which one lawyer calls a "drug interdiction zone." Either way, the state Transportation Commission recently learned of the mistake, and moved quickly to correct what a state official called a "clerical error" that occurred a decade ago.
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“This is a unique situation for this region,” said Todd Seaman, the Department of Transportation engineer for the Rapid City area.
Seaman said the 65-mph speed limit was supposed to have been extended the 1.3 miles east in 2004 after the state closed Exit 66 and built Exit 67. He maintained the speed limit signs in the area were placed in the correct positions at that time.
"The speed zone wasn't changed on paper in 2004, but the traveler would have always seen the signs," Seaman said.
Duffy brought the discrepancy to the DOT's attention earlier this year while preparing a defense for a West Coast couple stopped for going 68 in a 65-mph zone near Exit 67. After the stop, the officer learned they had 20 pounds of marijuana in their vehicle, and they were charged with possession with intent to distribute.
Duffy said he first noticed four or five years ago while traveling in Kansas City that his global positioning device would indicate when speed limits changed and filed that away as information that might be useful in a future case.
In January, he asked the DOT for information on how the precise location for speed-limit signs was determined as part of his investigation into whether his clients were pulled over for speeding in what turned out to be a 75-mph zone at the time.
Seaman said Duffy's inquiry about the discrepancy led to the Transportation Commission's decision in April to extend the speed-limit zone and have the change recorded as an administrative rule.
Duffy, who said he reached a "satisfactory plea bargain" in that case without learning exactly where the alleged speeding violation took place, disputes the state's explanation for why the administrative rule was changed.
"The signs were always in the wrong place. They made it right when they changed the law," said Duffy, who has an email from the DOT that says work orders were not used at that time when determining what mile markers were used to locate speed-limit signs.
Defense attorneys say the section of I-90 that passes Exit 67 is one of the Highway Patrol's prime spots for detecting and arresting drug runners transporting pounds of pot from the West Coast to points east of South Dakota.
Matt Kinney, a defense attorney who has offices in Rapid City and Spearfish, said he has defended more than 30 clients who were stopped for traffic violations in that area and then charged with drug offenses.
"This is a spot that has been utilized for a while," he said. "I've been getting Milepost 67 cases since 2009 or 2010."
Kinney said the officers, who often are accompanied by drug-detecting dogs, typically are looking for younger drivers in vehicles with out-of-state plates, particularly those from the West Coast. He said they will pull over a driver for going as little as three miles over the speed limit, which gives them an opportunity to survey the situation.
"Most of the violations that they pull them over for are ticky-tacky," Kinney said. "These are not the violations they would incorporate in the normal course of their job."
Kinney said that he has been able to get the charges reduced to misdemeanors in some cases, but he also has had clients sentenced to state prison after they were arrested near Exit 67.
"These guys are very good at following a hunch," he said. "It's amazing."
As far as the Department of Transportation is concerned, the speed-limit snafu has been corrected and it is time to move on. "It is what it is," Seaman said. "Either it was a clerical error or it just didn't get done."
Contact Patrick Butler at 394-8434 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.