Friday, July 13, 2007

California DUI Lawyer question: Is anonymous tip enough to stop California drunk driver?

California DUI CHP traffic officer Julian Irigoyen was traveling southbound on Highway 99 north of Bakersfield. He 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 DUI.

Susan Wells, driver of the van, had constricted pupils and a dry mouth and was immediately suspected of being California DUI - under the influence of illegal drugs. She failed California DUI field sobriety tests and was put under arrest. She tested positive for THC, cocaine, and opiates. Heroin and syringes were found in the van. Wells 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.

Wells’ California DUI lawyer challenged the conviction claiming that an anonymous and uncorroborated citizen’s 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’ California DUI stop was justified by reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. The tipster’s information regarding the van and its location was sufficiently precise justifying an immediate stop to protect both the driver and other motorists. This significant case lowers the threshold for California DUI vehicle stops.

Dissenting opinion
These justices dissented finding that in a vehicle stop case an anonymous uncorroborated tip is insufficient to justify the California DUI stop. The minority justices felt the 4th Amendment and citizens’ rights to privacy trump the ever-growing problem of California drunk drivers.