Law Review: Is an anonymous tip enough for making a DUI stop?
A dediciationThis column is dedicated to the memory of two of Truckees finest, Don McCormack and George Robertson. They left Truckee a better place.On Feb. 14, 2003, at 1:43 a.m., CHP traffic officer Julian Irigoyen was traveling southbound on Highway 99 north of Bakersfield. Irigoyen received a dispatch report of a possible intoxicated driver weaving all over the roadway. The subject vehicle was described as an 80s model blue van traveling northbound on Highway 99 at Airport Drive.Officer Irigoyen saw the blue van, activated his lights and stopped the van to investigate whether the driver was impaired. In hindsight, the officers mistake was not waiting long enough to observe the van weaving. Susan Wells, driver of the van, had constricted pupils and a dry mouth and was immediately suspected of being under the influence of illegal drugs. She failed the field sobriety tests and was put under arrest.Later she tested positive for THC, cocaine, and opiates. Heroin and syringes were found in the van.
DUI defenseWells was charged and convicted of possession of heroin and driving under the influence of a controlled substance. She was sentenced to 16 months in state prison after which she will go right back to her drug habit. Or so I predict. Wells smart lawyer challenged the conviction claiming that an anonymous and uncorroborated citizens tip of a possibly intoxicated highway driver weaving all over the roadway is insufficient to raise a reasonable suspicion that justifies stopping the vehicle.
The California Supreme Court decided this important first-impression case by first noting that for vehicle stops, reasonable suspicion is sufficient. Reasonable suspicion can arise from less reliable information than required for probable cause the standard for personal and home searches. The leading case on anonymous phone tips is Florida v. J.L., handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2000. In the J.L. case an anonymous tipper claimed a young African-American man in a plaid shirt standing at a particular bus stop was carrying a gun. The high court held the tip insufficient for an arrest not enough information and a violation of the 4th Amendment protections against illegal searches and seizures. The California Supreme Court found Susan Wells traffic stop was justified by reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. The tipsters information regarding the van and its location was sufficiently precise justifying an immediate stop to protect both the driver and other motorists. This is a significant case in California that lowers the threshold for DUI vehicle stops. It would not surprise me if it is taken all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
These justices dissented finding that in a vehicle stop case an anonymous uncorroborated tip is insufficient to justify the stop. The minority justices felt the 4th Amendment and citizens rights to privacy trump the ever-growing problem of drunken drivers.Jim Porter is an attorney with PorterSimon, with offices in Truckee, South Lake Tahoe and Reno. He is a mediator and was the Governor’s appointee to the Bipartisan McPherson Commission and the California Fair Political Practices Commission. He may be reached at email@example.com or at the firms web site http://www.portersimon.com.