Supreme Court declines to set rule on drunk driving stops

The Supreme Court lets stand a Virginia court ruling that police must actually see erratic driving – and not just rely on anonymous tips – to stop a suspected drunk driver.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The US Supreme Court has let stand a ruling in Virginia that police officers must personally observe erratic driving before stopping a suspected drunken driver.

On Tuesday, the high court declined to take up an appeal involving a Richmond motorist who was pulled over by a police officer based on an anonymous tip that he was driving under the influence of alcohol.

The issue in the case, Virginia v. Harris, was whether the officer was justified in confronting the driver with a roadside sobriety test, or whether he should have waited until Harris' driving gave rise to a reasonable suspicion of drunk driving independent of the anonymous tip.

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The case stems from a December 2005 telephone call received by police. The caller said that an intoxicated driver named Joseph Harris was driving an Altima, southbound on Meadowbridge Road in Richmond. The caller gave a partial license plate number.

Officer Claude Picard of the Richmond Police Department soon located an Altima being driven by a man with a license plate similar to the number offered by the caller.

The officer followed Mr. Harris and watched as the motorist slowed down before crossing an intersection where he had the right of way, and slowed down again 50 feet before reaching a red stop light. At other times the car was traveling at the stipulated speed limit of 25 mph.

Once through the intersection, Harris pulled his car over to the shoulder and stopped. Officer Picard pulled up behind Harris and activated his lights and siren.

The officer detected a strong odor of alcohol on Harris' breath and noticed that his speech was slurred. Picard administered a field sobriety test. Harris failed. He was charged with operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated. Harris had been convicted of the same offense twice before.

At trial, Harris' lawyer argued that the charge should be dropped because the police officer lacked the level of reasonable suspicion needed to justify the traffic stop. The trial court rejected the argument and Harris was convicted and sentenced to serve 90 days in prison. A state appeals court affirmed the decision.

The Virginia Supreme Court voted 4-3 to throw out the conviction. The state high court said the anonymous tip did not provide enough evidence of criminal wrongdoing to overcome Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.

The police officer must personally observe criminal activity before an investigative stop is justified, the Virginia court ruled.

The Virginia attorney general's office appealed the decision to the US Supreme Court, urging the high court to overturn the opinion and make clear that in cases involving suspected drunk drivers, police officers are justified in conducting a brief traffic stop.

The Supreme Court turned down the appeal without comment. Chief Justice John Roberts filed a dissent, joined by Justice Antonin Scalia.

Chief Justice Roberts said a sharp disagreement had emerged in federal and state courts over this particular Fourth Amendment issue. Most courts have upheld the police stop, but some have ruled for the motorist. "The conflict is clear and the stakes are high," he wrote.

"The effect of the rule below will be to grant drunk drivers 'one free swerve' before they can legally be pulled over by police," Roberts said.

"It will be difficult for an officer to explain to the family of a motorist killed by that swerve that the police had a tip that the driver of the other car was drunk, but that they were powerless to pull him over, even for a quick check."

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