U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roberts was apparently unhappy with the denial of a recent appeal brought before the top court. According to news reports, the Supreme Court declined to review a case of driving under the influence of alcohol, which was under appeal due to a reversed conviction of an impaired driver. The reversal was based on the fact that the police did not actually see the drunk driver do anything wrong. Instead, they stopped the driver based on an anonymous tip of a car being driven by someone allegedly intoxicated.
As a Birmingham DUI defense lawyer, I was pleased to see that the Supreme Court refused to review this appeal. Not because I believe the top court shouldn't be handling DUI cases, but because this goes to the core of what the police need to be doing, which is observing traffic violations and acting on those observations. In the original drunk driving case, which occurred in Virginia, the police answered an anonymous call advising them that a person may have been driving under the influence of alcohol.
The original outcome was a conviction for DUI and affirmed by the Virginia Court of Appeals, which upheld the legality of the stop. However, on further appeal to the Virginia State Supreme Court, justices voted 4-to-3 to reverse the conviction and also to adopt a rule that commands police officers following a driver reported to be drunk to do nothing until they see the driver actually do something unsafe on the road.
The case was then brought before the U.S. Supreme, which has declined to review it. This apparently has upset Justice Roberts who wrote in his dissenting remarks, “Ordinary citizens are well aware of the dangers posed by drunk driving, and they frequently report such conduct to the police. A number of States have adopted programs specifically designed to encourage such tips….”
Roberts argues that the US Supreme Court should hear the case because he is not convinced that the law requires independent confirmation of an anonymous tip. “I am not sure that the Fourth Amendment requires such independent corroboration before the police can act, at least in the special context of anonymous tips reporting drunk driving. This is an important question that is not answered by our past decisions, and that has deeply divided federal and state courts. The Court should grant the petition for certiorari to answer the question and resolve the conflict.”
Of course, for the patrolman on the street this ruling doesn't change much. Police will still continue to pull people over who have been reported as potentially drunk. If they turn out to be sober, they simple let them go like they typically do. No harm. No report. No complaints.
On the other hand, if the motorist turns out to be impaired, then they arrest and in states where it is necessary, they cite a minor violation (such as making too wide a turn) to justify the stop. It will only be the very naive officer who lets a truly impaired driver slip through his or her fingers.
Denial of cert in DUI case provokes dissent, WisLawJournal.com, October 26, 2009