Did a tipster observe drunk driving in your DUI case?

Due to the advent of cellular telephones, the nation’s highways have become a nationwide version of neighborhood watch. As a result, there are many drunk driving cases where the DUI stop was precipitated by a tip from a tipster.

In some instances, the informant will have identified themselves, and in other instances, the informant will have been anonymous. More credibility is lent to those informants who have identified themselves than to those whose are anonymous tipsters. In either instance, the issue is not what the arresting police officer observed. The inquiry involves what information the informant conveyed, and how reliable the information was.

Even if the informant is known, the information given to the police must be sufficient to warrant a DUI stop. For example, in a Utah case, the defendant’s girlfriend called in and said they were having a nonviolent domestic dispute. The girlfriend, who was intoxicated, told the police dispatcher that her boyfriend had been drinking. She then related that the defendant had left the premises, driving away. The girlfriend described the defendant, his vehicle, and route of travel when he departed. The dispatcher erroneously broadcasted that the defendant was intoxicated. A police sergeant spotted the defendant driving slowly, but not committing any traffic violations. He stopped the defendant and later arrested him for driving under the influence.

The trial court denied the defendant’s motion to suppress and the Utah Court of Appeals reversed. The Court of Appeals found the tip insufficient to support a detention because the caller only stated that the defendant had been drinking. No information was given about how much he had to drink, or other specifics pertaining to his level of intoxication.

Anonymous informants in DUI cases

Courts across the country come out differently as to whether DUI stops based on anonymous tips are lawful. The United States Supreme Court has not directly addressed what criteria are necessary to permit a drunk driving detention based upon an anonymous tip. However, the Court has dealt with anonymous tip cases in other contexts.

In a Florida drug case, the Supreme Court upheld a detention of a suspected drug courier based upon an anonymous tip. The informant accurately predicted what time the suspect would leave her apartment, what car she would be driving, and what motel she would be going to in her travels. The Court found that the police had reasonable suspicion to detain the suspect because the anonymous tipster had accurately predicted the future movements of the suspect with some certainty. However, the Court described this as a close case.

In contrast to the drug case, in another Florida case, the Court decided that an anonymous tip did not have sufficient predictability to justify the detention of a young black male in a plaid shirt at a certain bus stop carrying a gun. The police had no information about the informant.

If there is a deciding factor in the two cases, it probably involves the informant’s ability to predict future behavior by the suspect. In the drug carrier case the informant accurately forecasted future behavior. In the second case there was no attempt at such a prediction by the informant.

The Ninth Circuit has tried to delineate the standards to use in reviewing the propriety of an anonymous tip detention. The court has set forth the following requirements for an anonymous tip to serve as the basis for reasonable suspicion: (1) the tip must include a “range of details;” (2) the tip cannot simply describe easily observed facts and conditions, but must predict the suspect’s future movements; and (3) the future movements must be corroborated by independent police observation.

State cases holding DUI stop based on an anonymous tip unlawful

The following are some examples of state court cases that have found DUI stops based on an anonymous tip unlawful.

An anonymous tipster in a Texas case called the county sheriff’s department indicating that the caller had seen a red pickup truck traveling the wrong way in the northbound lane. The identity of the informant was unknown as was the informant’s reliability and location. The Texas court disallowed the stop and noted the following: “When the circumstances implicate an anonymous tip, caution must be taken. This is so because the tip, standing alone, seldom provides the reasonable suspicion necessary to authorize an investigative stop and detention. In other words, ‘a police officer generally cannot rely alone on a police broadcast of an anonymous phone call to establish reasonable suspicion.’”

In a Georgia case, an anonymous tip without specific details did not justify a DUI stop. The court observed that the tip made no prediction about future behavior by which its reliability could be tested. The tip alone provided virtually nothing from which one might conclude that the caller was either honest or his information reliable; likewise, the tip gave absolutely no indication of the basis for the caller’s predictions regarding the suspect’s criminal activities.

In an Indiana case, which is an example of a hybrid situation where the tipster is not anonymous, but the tipster’s identity has not been fully confirmed by the police, a police officer received a dispatch informing him of a vehicle being driven recklessly. The dispatcher knew the tipster’s name, although the identity of the caller was not verified. The Indiana court deemed the stop illegal. In doing so, the court noted that at the time of the stop the police officer did not know whether the caller was a concerned citizen, a prankster, or an imposter.

State cases holding DUI stop based on an anonymous tip lawful

In contrast to the above cases, in the following case, the California Supreme Court case found a DUI stop based on an anonymous tip lawful.

While on patrol on Highway 99 in Kern County, California, a highway patrol officer received a broadcast of a possible drunk driver weaving all over the roadway. The California Supreme Court inferred from the silent record that the report was generated from an anonymous tip. The apparent tipster described the vehicle as an ‘80s model blue van traveling northbound on Highway 99 at Airport Drive. At the time of the dispatch the officer was but a few miles north of the reported location. The officer pulled over and waited for the van to pass him. Two or three minutes later, a blue van passed by his location. The officer did not see the driver of the blue van commit any traffic violations. Nonetheless, based on the anonymous tip, the officer pulled the van over and subsequently arrested the driver for driving under the influence.

The California Supreme Court conceded that the tip was both anonymous and uncorroborated. Still, the court upheld the DUI stop citing four factors. First, the court felt an intoxicated driver posed a far more grave and immediate risk to the public than a report of mere passive gun possession as was the situation in the Florida gun case discussed above. Second, the court felt instances of fake reports of drunk driving would be rare—especially with a contemporaneous tip. Third, the court believed that being pulled over by the police is not as much as an intrusion as being searched for a weapon (thereby, again distinguishing the Florida gun case). Fourth, the tip seemed reliable because the description and location of the vehicle matched.

Identified informants in DUI cases

Courts give substantial leeway to informants who identify themselves. The cases below bear out this judicial philosophy. The reasoning is that presumably people who identify themselves to the authorities are more likely to convey truthful information. Failure to tell the truth could open the informant up to civil and criminal penalties.

In a Missouri case, the eyewitness told the police officer that he had observed a purple Jeep driving erratically. The informant personally gave the information to the police officer. The Missouri court found the subsequent detention and arrest lawful.

In another case in Kansas, the informant gave her name and address along with a description of the car. The Kansas court upheld the detention and indicated that a citizen informant who leaves her name and address is presumed to be credible.

In an Arkansas case, the tipster identified himself and noted that he witnessed criminal activity. Subsequent observations by the police officer confirmed the tipster’s claims. As such, the detention was upheld.

In a Massachusetts case, information from a known citizen was deemed reliable.

In one Florida case, the court described the facts in the case as an example of an informant whose tip was considered highly reliable. The informant was a fast food manager who dialed 911 and reported a suspected DUI driver. The informant stated her name, address and current location to the emergency operator along with a description of the vehicle and its license plate number. The fast food manager indicated to the officer who arrived on the scene the vehicle the defendant was driving.

However, it is important to note that information from an identified informant is not always found sufficient to support a DUI stop. As discussed above in the Utah case where the girlfriend called to report a nonviolent domestic dispute, the Utah court found information provided by the girlfriend to be insufficient to support a DUI stop because she only said the defendant had been drinking. The girlfriend did not say how much or that the defendant was intoxicated.