The Virginia Supreme Court has thrown out the conviction of a man accused of driving under the influence of alcohol because he was stopped after police received an anonymous tip. Because the arresting officer did not himself witness the driver violating any traffic laws, the court reasoned that the conviction could not stand.
The driver in question, Joseph A. Moses Harris, Jr., was pulled over by a police officer the morning of December 31, 2005 after police received an anonymous call that Harris was driving a green Nissan Altima down the street while intoxicated.
The officer witnessed Harris driving slowly through an intersection and put on his brake lights well in advance of a red light. When the officer pulled Harris over, he smelled alcohol on his breath, so he administered several field sobriety tests – all of which Harris failed
The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear the case, which has angered several of the justices. Chief Justice John Roberts has spoken out against the lower court’s ruling, claiming that the decision will “grant drunk drivers ‘one free swerve’”, which could end the life of an innocent motorist.
Justice Antonin Scalia joined Chief Justice Roberts in dissenting with the majority of justices who declined to take the case, claiming that the Virginia Supreme Court’s decision will put people’s lives in danger.
With this decision, Virginia joins states like Wyoming, Massachusetts and Connecticut whose courts have ruled that police officers must themselves witness drivers commit a traffic violation before they can pull them over based on an anonymous tip.
These states, however, are in the minority. The majority of states have courts that have ruled that pulling over a suspected drunk driver based on an anonymous tip does not violate the Fourth Amendment. It is not an unreasonable search and seizure, they contend, for drunk drivers to be stopped because police receive an anonymous tip.
The Virginia Supreme Court’s ruling leaves motorists in danger of being hit by a drunk driver who has been reported for driving under the influence by an anonymous tipster. What the ruling leaves unclear is what will happen if a motorist is killed or seriously injured by an intoxicated driver and the family of the motorist finds out that police could have stopped the drunk driver because they had an anonymous tip – but didn’t because they were waiting for the driver to violate a traffic law first?
“The police”, argued Chief Justice Roberts, “should have every legitimate tool at their disposal to get drunk drivers off the road.”
If you need advice or help after being seriously injured in an accident involving a drunk driver, the attorneys at Dulaney, Lauer & Thomas can help you. Please contact one of their Northern Virginia offices to discuss your case for no cost or obligation with one of their experienced drunk driving accident lawyers.
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