It has become an increasingly common practice for police to receive anonymous phone calls about “drunk drivers” on the road. These “tips” are typically relayed by the police dispatcher to an officer in the field as a call to investigate a “suspected drunk driver”; the officer is rarely told that the basis of the information is an anonymous caller with no corroboration or reliability. The officer then pulls the car over, fully expecting to encounter an intoxicated person behind the wheel. And, as the psychologists tell us, we tend to see what we expect to see.
With the backing of MADD, this is being actively encouraged in most states now, featuring media campaigns and roadside billboards encouraging citizens to call an emergency phone number to report anyone who appears to be driving in a suspicious manner — what cops and lawyers call "dial-a-drunk". And, increasingly, we are seeing citizens being reported as "drunk" who are merely distracted by a cell phone, for example, or who were involved in a "road rage" incident with the angry caller. The source or facts don’t matter: the dispatcher forwards a "suspected DUI" call to the cop in the field and the reported driver will be pulled over.
Some courts still adhere to the constitutional standards that a tip must be reliable before it can be the basis for a warrantless stop and search (a field sobriety test may be considered a search, and a field breath test definitely is). In the alternative, the Constitution requires the officer to be able to independently observe indications of impaired driving before he can stop the driver.
In an increasing number of states, however, those standards — like so many other “DUI exceptions to the Constitution” — have fallen by the wayside in recent years. Even in those states where the courts continue to apply the Bill of Rights, the prosecution is commonly able to justify the stop because the officer will testify that once he identified the reported car on the road, he followed it and observed it to “weave”. As any cop or defense attorney knows, this is an old, well-worn standby used to justify stopping any vehicle: it is the cop’s word against the citizen’s and, in any event, all cars weave to some degree — particularly if followed for any period of time.
Now consider the wonderful possibilities of anonymous — such as this news story:
SHERIDAN, Wyo. (AP) – Mayor Dave Kinskey passed a sobriety test after a phoned-in tip that said he may have been driving under the influence of alcohol. After he was pulled over Saturday night and passed the field sobriety test, Kinskey had his attorney drive him to a hospital, where he had a blood-alcohol test at his own expense. The test showed that his blood-alcohol level was 0.02 percent, according to Police Chief Mike Card…. City Councilwoman Kathy Kennedy said she was with Kinskey at a motorcycle rally Saturday and saw him drink two beers over two hours. ‘’To me this is just a smear campaign to try to get at him due to politics. I think it is pretty bad when an off-duty city employee calls in to smear the mayor by saying he was intoxicated when he wasn’t,’’ Kennedy said.
What if you were the driver and the caller was your ex-spouse? And you were not a mayor?