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Is an Anonymous Tip of a Drunk Driver Enough for a Stop?

Does a police officer have an obligation to verify an anonymous report of bad driving before pulling over a motor vehicle?  In other words, can an officer pull someone over just because a dispatcher says that someone reported reckless driving even if the officer does not witness such driving himself or herself.  The United States Supreme Court has agreed to weigh in on this issue by its grant of certiorari in the case of Navarette vs. The State of California.

The California Supreme Court ruled that the officer could rely upon the dispatch to pull a driver over even if the officer did not observe any traffic violations.

The Facts of the Case

A Humboldt County dispatcher telephoned a California Highway Patrol dispatcher and reported that a 911 call had been received which described a pickup truck that had run someone off the road and gave its approximate location and direction of travel.  The description gave the color of the truck and its license plate number.  The first dispatcher did not provide any additional information.

The CHIP's dispatcher made a broadcast of the information.  Sometime later, a CHP officer spotted the truck and turned around to follow the vehicle.  This officer was soon joined by a second officer, and the truck was stopped.  Neither officer reported observing any erratic or unsafe driving.

The officers, upon making contact with occupants of the truck, reported smelling the odor of marijuana and used this as justification to search the truck.  They discovered four large closed bags of marijuana in the bed of the pickup truck.  The driver and passenger of the truck were arrested for possession and transportation of the marijuana.

After their motion to suppress was denied, the truck's occupants plead guilty to the offense of illegal transportation of marijuana.  California procedure still allowed them to appeal the denial of their motion to suppress.

Georgia law does not allow defendants to appeal preceding issues after they plead guilty or nolo contendere to a case.  This is unfortunate because it creates a situation where defendants must insist upon their right to trial and risk judicial punishment for use of trial resources in order to bring their legal issues before an appellate court.

The Legal Question

In this case, the anonymous tip was proven reliable in its identification of a determinate person but not in its assertion of illegality.  In other words, the report identified a particular truck at a general location, but the officers saw no illegal conduct before pulling over the truck.

For vehicle stops, an exception has crept into our jurisprudence for reports of reckless driving and drunk driving.  Ordinarily, officers must see something to verify the reported illegal conduct before conducting a seizure of a person or vehicle by stopping the person or vehicle.  A number of courts nationwide have removed this verification requirement when the report involves reckless or drunk driving.

The general rule was set out in the U.S. Supreme Court case of Florida v. J.L. in 2000.  In that case, the Supreme Court held that the police must corroborate anonymous tips.  The government argued that because the report in that case was of a particular person carrying a handgun and that handguns were dangerous, that extraordinary dangers justify unusual precautions.  The court rejected this argument for an exception and requires that anonymous tips be corroborated as to identity and as to illegality.  The Supreme Court pointed out that this would allow anonymous persons to harass their enemies or targets by making false, anonymous bare-boned tips about guns.

That same possibility exists with regard to reports of reckless and drunk driving.  The Supreme Court is being asked to resolve the conflict that has evolved since the J.L. case involving these types of reports.

The Status of Georgia Law on the Issue

In State v. Williams, a 1997 case, the Georgia Court of Appeals affirmed a trial court's grant of a motion to suppress on this issue.  The court found that the anonymous tip was sufficient to identify a particular driver but that the tip was not sufficient in alleging illegality and that no illegality was corroborated.

In a more recent case, Lewis v. State, decided August 13, 2013, maintained that interpretation of the law.  In Lewis, the report was simply of a driver traveling very slowly in a particular area.

On the other hand, the same court seems to have departed from that view of the law in Sims v. State (2009).  There, the dispatcher sent an officer to a particular location based on a report of an intoxicated woman arguing loudly.  Before the officer arrived, updated information was reported that the woman had left the location in a particular vehicle.  The officer located the vehicle and stopped it without observing any illegal conduct or unsafe driving by Sims.

The Court of Appeals stated that “[a] dispatcher's report of a suspected intoxicated driver, containing details about the driver, the driver's vehicle, the driver's behavior, and the location where the behavior occurred, has been held to provide articulable suspicion authorizing a responding officer to detain the driver, even if the source of the report is a citizen or unidentified informant.”  This statement of the law is the drunk driving exception to the Constitution.

Concerned Citizen versus Anonymous Tipster

Court decisions make a distinction between cases that involve anonymous tipsters from those that involve concerned citizen.  The difference is basically one of identification.   A person who is willing to identify himself or herself and be accountable for the information provided is considered more reliable than someone who withholds their identity.  The person who wants to hide their identify may have other purposes besides calling attention to illegal conduct.  They may be seeking to harass or bother their target.

Conclusion

This case offers the opportunity for the U.S. Supreme Court to make clear the level of protection that ordinary citizens have from being stopped by law enforcement officers based on anonymous and unproven reports of reckless or drunk driving.  There is no reason not to require officers to at least observe the vehicle and determine whether there is, in fact, illegal behavior before conducting a Fourth Amendment seizure.  While the Navarette case involves persons who were ultimately found to have been engaged in illegal conduct, but not illegal or unsafe driving, their case provides a means of providing protection for hundreds and thousands of motorists who may have been stopped based on similar tips and were not engaged in illegal conduct and thus had little way to challenge the law enforcement behavior.

About the Author

Sean A. Black is a Northeast Georgia DUI Lawyer.  His office is in Toccoa, Georgia, and is available to handle DUI and serious criminal cases throughout Georgia.

Sean A. Black

Sean A. Black is a 1992 graduate of the Emory University School of Law. He has been in private practice in Toccoa, Georgia since June 1, 1992.

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