Oct 21, 2009

Anonymous tips alone may not allow cops to stop vehicles

An anonymous tipster calls a drunk driving hotline and reports that "An idiot in a red car is driving down Elm Street.  He's swerving back and forth.  The car has a Virginia plate, the last numbers are 123."  The tip is relayed to a motorcycle officer. Can the officer pull over the possibly drunk driver of the red car based on the tip?   

The answer may be "No."  In the case of Virginia v. Harris, a narrow 4 to 3 majority in the VIrginia Supreme Court ruled that the anonymous tip alone did not justify the police officer's stopping of the vehicle driven by Harris.  The stop constituted an "unreasonable search and seizure" because the police officer acted only based on the tip and did not personally see Harris' bad driving. 

The U.S. Supreme Court voted not to review the Virginia Supreme Court's decision.  So although the VIrginia ruling is not binding on other states, the U.S. Supreme Court's action suggests that a majority of the justices agree with its outcome.

The Virginia court's decision is probably legally correct.  For example, police officers have to verify the information that anonymous tipsters provide before judges issue search or arrest warrants.  And the decision may not affect many cases, because most of the time police officers are likely to be able to verify tipsters' information. 

But the Virginia court's ruling may have lethal consequences.  If a police officer has to delay stopping a car until the officer personally verifies a tipster's information, the result may be more deaths and injuries caused by drunk drivers.