Courts debate tips as cause for DUI stops

The US Supreme Court refused to hear a case on the issue.
Katie Prince / Graphic Designer

As the U.S. Supreme Court issued its docket for the coming term, two justices issued a rare dissent last week against the court majority's decision not to hear a case about whether police can rely on anonymous tips to track down drunk drivers.

Justice Samuel Alito joined Chief Justice John Roberts in dissenting against the majority's decision not to hear Virginia v. Harris, in which the drunk driving conviction of Joseph A. Moses Harris, Jr. was thrown out because police pulled Harris over on a tip that he had been drinking and driving.

"The stakes are high," Roberts wrote in his dissent. "The effect of the rule below will be to grant drunk drivers 'one free swerve' before they can be legally pulled over by police. It will be difficult for an officer to explain to the family of a motorist killed by that swerve that the police had a tip that the driver of the other car was drunk, but that they were powerless to pull him over, even for a quick check."

According to court documents, police received an anonymous tip Dec. 31, 2005 that Harris was driving a green Nissan Altima while intoxicated. An officer located Harris and saw him drive slowly through an intersection where he did not have to stop and brake well before another red light, but did not witness a violation. In February, the Virginia State Supreme Court threw out the charges against Harris, citing a lack of probable cause for the stop.

Alicia Ozenberger, project director for the Missouri Youth Adult Alliance, a group that works to counter underage drinking, said some teen drivers might interpret the ruling as a free pass to drink and drive, but said the burden for discouraging such behavior is on adult figures more directly involved in teens' lives.

"Kids gather their opinions from the media, but they also get their opinions from family and friends around them," Ozenberger said. "It's really up to us adults to set the right example."

Carl McDonald, national law enforcement initiative manager for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said courts have historically struggled with the issue of whether anonymous tips constitute probable cause for a traffic stop.

Although the Virginia court ruled officers must see a traffic violation before they can make a stop, the ruling would not affect checkpoints, where officers can briefly detain all drivers, even if they have committed no crime. Checkpoints were legalized by the 1990 case, Michigan Department of State Police v. Sitz.

Despite the ruling in the Virginia case, McDonald said MADD still encourages citizens to report all possible drunk drivers so police can find the driver and watch for a traffic violation necessary to establish probable cause.

"We encourage people to call because that's a true emergency," McDonald said. "It doesn't really change much because the police know they have to establish their own suspicion to support the tip."

MADD played a role in the Harris case, submitting an amicus brief giving their argument for the case to be heard even though they were not directly involved.

Duke University law professor James Coleman headed a group MADD commissioned to submit a brief in the case. He said the Supreme Court ought to tell the states what is required by the Constitution because this case involves such an important issue, the danger drunk driving presents.

"I'm not sure the Virginia court was wrong, but I believe that this is an important enough issue that the Supreme Court should have clarified it," Coleman said.

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