A fundamental consideration for defense attorneys representing clients accused of drunk driving is whether the police officer had satisfactory constitutional grounds to make the traffic stop. Beginning with the 1968 case of Terry v. Ohio, the US Supreme Court has issued a number of decisions intended to clarify the circumstances constituting what is now known as “reasonable suspicion” to pull a driver over based on the belief that he or she may be intoxicated.

The essence of reasonable suspicion in the context of DUI is that a traffic stop amounts to a “seizure” that the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits in the absence of reasonable grounds. Specifically, a stop based on reasonable suspicion – also known as a “Terry stop” – requires that the police officer be able to identify facts which, when taken together with reasonable inferences from those facts, reasonably justify pulling a driver over.

Examples of driving behaviors that can lead to reasonable suspicion of drunk driving include weaving within the driving lane or departing from the lane, unusually slow driving, speeding, making an illegal turn, nearly striking other vehicles or stationary objects, and more. These kinds of behaviors are typically based on the police officers direct observation, but it is not a requirement that the officer personally witness acts behind the wheel that would give rise to reasonable suspicion. Sometimes the observations of others – who then provide information to the police in the form of an anonymous “tip” – can also be grounds for a DUI-based Terry stop.

A relatively recent case in which the US Supreme Court considered tips provided to police as grounds for reasonable suspicion for a traffic stop is Navarrette v. California, which the court decided in 2014. In this case, a driver had placed a 911 call complaining about another driver who she claimed had forced her off the road. Not long afterwards a Highway Patrol officer stopped a vehicle based on its matching characteristics to the one that the 911 caller reported.

The traffic stop led to the discovery of a significant quantity of marijuana in the vehicle, which led to the arrest of the driver and passenger. They attempted to preclude the use of the marijuana as evidence against them based on the claim that the traffic stop amounted to an unreasonable seizure under the Fourth Amendment, but their argument was rejected by the trial court and the state Court of Appeals before the US Supreme Court agreed to consider the constitutional question involved.

The Supreme Court upheld the convictions. It held that although anonymous tips frequently do not support a finding of reasonable suspicion, under some circumstances such tips can form sufficient grounds to make such a finding. Specifically, the Court concluded that the police could rely on the 911 call in the case at hand as being reliable, and that the claim by the 911 caller of being run off the road was enough for a police officer to reasonably suspect that driver intoxication was involved.

Specific considerations that the Court took into account included:

  • The 911 caller gave a specific description of the other vehicle, including his license plate number;
  • The use of a 911 emergency call, as opposed to a completely anonymous means of communication, gave credibility to the tip because a reasonable person would be reluctant to make a false 911 report based on the possibility of punishment for doing so; and
  • The 911 caller’s report of a near accident provided sufficient basis for reasonable suspicion of drunk driving, and the relatively short span of time from the 911 call to the traffic stop added credibility to the tip that the police received.

Although the Supreme Court in Navarrette did not necessarily create a new standard for reasonable suspicion based on tips provided by others as opposed to the officer’s own observation, its decision has made it easier for police to rely on tips as long as the specific facts would lead a “reasonable” police officer to conclude that a traffic stop was warranted under the circumstances.

If you or a loved one has been charged with a crime in Oklahoma, contact the Hunsucker Legal Group at 405-231-5600 for a free consultation.