On October 20, the Supreme Court cast some doubt on the legal authority of police to stop drivers suspected of driving under the influence based only on a tip from an anonymous caller.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. strongly dissented, but the high court allowed a ruling by the Virginia Supreme Court to stand that maintained that police may follow a suspected drunk driver’s vehicle, but may not pull the suspect over until the officer witnesses suspicious activity, such as swerving in a lane.
In his dissent, Roberts noted that hotlines and other services encourage members of the public to report suspected drunk drivers.
The action of the Supreme Court is not a formal ruling; therefore it does not require other states to follow the Virginia Supreme Court ruling. However, the case will likely spawn more legal challenges to police stops solely relying on tips from callers.
The ruling freed Richmond resident Joseph Harris, who was arrested after his green Nissan Altima was reported heading south on Meadowbridge Road. The caller included a partial license plate and his name.
After police stopped Harris, he stumbled out of his vehicle and was noticeably intoxicated as the officer tried to question him. However, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled it an “unreasonable search” to stop and question a driver solely based on a caller’s tip.
Most state courts, including California and Illinois, have upheld the searches based on anonymous tips, provided the vehicle matches the description provided.