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Can I get pulled over for drunk driving based on an anonymous tip?


Yes, you can get pulled over for drunk driving based on an anonymous tip. In Navarette v. California, the Supreme Court held that police officers may stop a driver to check whether he is drunk based solely on an anonymous call to a 911 dispatcher. I have seen it happen as a Jacksonville criminal defense attorney. One August afternoon in 2008, a 911 dispatcher in Humboldt County, California, got a call from a driver reporting that a specific silver Ford pickup truck, license number supplied, had driven her off the Pacific Coast Highway. Highway patrol officers found and trailed the pickup, which seemed to be driving normally. Nonetheless, they pulled the pickup over, supposedly to see whether the driver was drunk. He was not, but he was transporting 30 pounds of marijuana, which the officers later claimed was in plain smell.

The Fourth Amendment of the Constitution protects people from "unreasonable searches and seizures". That means the cops can't just stop any vehicle they want on the off chance that the driver is drunk or transporting contraband. Courts require a "reasonable suspicion" that the person being stopped has done something criminal, like speeding, for example. It used to be that the mere fact a police officer has gotten (or claims to have gotten) a tip did not create by itself "reasonable suspicion". The tip had to have been from a known and credible source or, if anonymous, must itself contain "indicia of reliability" such as detailed information to suggest that the tipster has more than malice in mind.

Just what does "reasonable suspicion" now mean? Reasonable suspicion depends on "the factual and practical considerations of everyday life on which reasonable and prudent men, not legal technicians, act", Justice Clarence Thomas wrote. In this case, he believed the decision to stop seemed reasonable. Why? Some 911 systems, Thomas wrote, have technological "features that allow for identifying and tracing callers, and thus provide some safeguards against making false reports with immunity." So, since the 911 call may not be anonymous at all, "a reasonable officer could conclude that a false tipster would think twice before using such a system."

Talk about conjecture and speculation. The Supreme Court seems to be saying that even though callers think they are reporting crimes anonymously, they ought to know that their calls can be traced and therefore would be dissuaded from making a false anonymous call. But false anonymous calls happen all the time. People are cut off in traffic, offended, and the next thing you know, they are calling 911 and reporting that the offending driver is drunk or speeding or the like. There are many documented examples of phony 911 calls, even made by the police themselves. In one case, a Montana police officer phoned in a phony tip claiming that the mayor was driving drunk; in a second, a North Carolina cop called a bar and told a drinker that there were ambulances at his house. The victim rushed to his car, and the cop had him arrested for DUI. In a third case, Michigan police phoned in phony tips that a driver had drugs and a gun, because they knew the driver was on supervised release and they hoped to find an excuse to re-arrest him. And these are the ones that came to light. Imagine how many false 911 calls are made reporting bogus crimes that no one ever finds out about.

Lesson Learned:

The law as it now stands states that an anonymous tip constitutes "reasonable suspicion" of drunk driving, without anything else. This is a horrible decision and is not what "reasonable suspicion" is all about. I must agree with Justice Antonin Scalia, who called this decision "a freedom-destroying cocktail." If you see someone you don't like at a bar or a party, you can now call 911 when they leave and anonymously report that your enemy is driving drunk, whether it's true or not.

If you get pulled over in Louisiana and your blood alcohol level is lower than the cop who stopped you...you're free to go.

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