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Interesting case on driver rights and public safety

I think this story of a Virginia court case will be of interest to travelers who would like to see more of a law enforcement response to phone calls reporting bad driving behavior.

The story by Robert Barnes describes the response of Chief Justice John Roberts to the decision by his fellow Supremes against reviewing the 2005 case. it began when Richmond police pulled over a driver whom they suspected of driving drunk. The suspicion was based on an anonymous tip.

The driver failed a sobriety test, according to court papers, and was later convicted of drunk driving. The Virginia Supreme Court overturned the conviction, ruling that police did not have reasonable cause to stop him because they had not seen him driving erratically.

Travelers have written to my column urging police to either set up tip lines for drivers to call or to act more aggressively on calls from the road. Some law enforcement agencies note that there are limits on the actions they can take in response to citizen complaints. Some say explicitly that you're not much help to them if you're anonymous. The Richmond case deals with one variation on this broad theme.

What's your take? I'm very much in favor of privacy rights for travelers. Still, there are limits to privacy in public situations. For example, courts have ruled in favor of the use of cameras photographing motorists in traffic law enforcement.


By Robert Thomson  |  October 20, 2009; 3:14 PM ET
Categories:  Driving , Safety  | Tags: Dr. Gridlock, law enforcement  
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I've called 911 before on drivers who were obviously erratic, probably drunk, and clearly dangerous. (Not since I moved here, but when I lived in MA, I nearly got hit by someone who was weaving between lanes erratically, going at least 90 mph but probably more, with his lights off. At about 9:00 p.m. We reported him to the stateys.)

Aren't citizens supposed to report behavior that's obviously dangerous? I mean, I don't want to live in a police state (not a fan of surveillance cameras, for example) but if I'm on a subway platform or street corner and I see some guy threatening some other guy with a weapon, I'm going to call the cops and the cops are presumably going to do something about it. Maybe not long-term charges or fines or whatever, but they're going to show up and defuse the situation in the immediate, dangerous sense.

So shouldn't I expect the same if I'm driving? The police can't be everywhere watching everything, and nor should they!, but that's why we *have* emergency phone lines: so when someone sees something obviously dangerous happening, they can report it and an expert can come in and stop it from happening...

I can't say if the drunk driving conviction in the story was right or not, but it seems right to me that at the very least, the driver was taken off the road for the evening.

Posted by: EtoilePB | October 20, 2009 4:33 PM | Report abuse

I have told both my sons that when they get behind the wheel they need to drive with the understanding that they are in control of a dangerous and deadly weapon no different then a loaded gun. A loaded gun in anyone’s hand has the potential to be deadly. When it is in the hands of a person under the influence the danger increases. Driving is not a right. These are public roads, paid for by public funds. If you don’t want to follow the rules, you should loose the privilege. If I contact the police because I feel someone is driving recklessly, I expect the police to respond. If the individual in this case had not been drunk, the police would have let him go. This only became an issue because a CRIMINAL committed a crime and was looking for a way to get away with it.

I personally would rather be inconvenienced a hundred times over then have one drunk driver allowed on the road to kill yet another person. No, I am not condoning a police state. The reality is that when a drunk driver is pulled over, with probable cause, they almost always walk out of court with the right to continue driving for work or school, sometimes even after the second offense. Why is that? Another reality is that police are very limited in when and where they can set up sobriety checkpoints, and in some states, this is not permitted at all. Why? Because it might infringe on the CRIMINAL'S constitutional rights. What about my rights? I guess unless your a criminal you have no constitutional rights.

Virginia didn’t just give a free pass to drunks; they gave a free pass to every criminal that commits a crime outside the view of law enforcement.

Posted by: varmstrong1 | October 21, 2009 7:32 AM | Report abuse

It would be nice if Roberts could put aside his "Law and Order" prejudice and be consistent in his legal opinions. The law on anonymous tips is well-established - the police have no authority to detain and interrogate people on nothing more than anonymous tips. Detaining someone requires that the officer personally have a reasonable and articulable suspicion that a crime has been, is being, or is about to be, committed. There are very clear prior Supreme Court decisions on this. Roberts should be consistent in his anti-progressive stance on the role of the Judiciary, and not flip-flop just because he thinks that the police power of the government should be able to trump personal rights.

It's not about giving drunk drivers "one free swerve" or about citizens not calling to report criminal or suspicious behavior. It's about protecting the average innocent citizen from harassment and violation of their rights by the police, even when they are acting in good faith based on information from other citizens. EtoilePB, you can and SHOULD call when you see the kind of thing you describe. And the police should follow up on your reports. Nothing in this decision even remotely hints otherwise. But, if after arriving on the scene, the officer witnesses nothing to lead him to believe that anyone has, is, or is about to commit a crime, he does not and should not have the authority to start violating people's rights to be free from police interference in their private daily lives, based on nothing more than an anonymous tip. That, as I said before, is very well-established constitutional law. If the person is really that impaired, it should be pretty obvious, so it's not like this places any undo burden upon law enforcement.

Posted by: Rob29 | October 21, 2009 8:53 AM | Report abuse

I have no problem with the Virginia Supreme Court's ruling and I don't think it would have been all that difficult for the cops to do things properly: Just observe the driver for a while and then pull him over if warranted. If the guy's driving doesn't give any reason to pull him over, then that suggests that in fact he's not impaired. (Yes, I recognize that existing law imposes an artificial bright-line test, but that doesn't mean that a driver is necessarily impaired in a way that gives the cops probable cause to test for DUI.)

Suppose they had arrested the driver simply on the basis of the phone call. Obviously, that's not allowed. Hearsay is generally inadmissible in court, and for very good reasons. I have a problem with the notion of the police acting solely on the basis of phone calls without engaging in their own observations because you don't know who's making the anonymous call or why that person may be doing it--that is, is someone calling the cops simply to harass their annoying neighbor or the like?

Posted by: 1995hoo | October 21, 2009 9:22 AM | Report abuse

Roberts is obviously wrong, as a supreme court judge, to say it "grants drunk drivers one free swerve." Legally, they aren't drunk at all until there is due reason to believe so. The precedent is that an anonymous tip is not enough for that. Therefore, an anonymous tip, perhaps by a prankster, does not establish the person as being drunk. Only after the first indication is the driver considered "drunk" in any way, legally. Roberts is therefore way off base. He has let his "supreme" status get the best of his legal thinking.

Posted by: johnnormansp | October 21, 2009 9:28 AM | Report abuse

The article here leaves out an important point. The court decision does not say that the police cannot act on anonymous tips. If you call and report a drunk driver, of course they can go to the person's reported location to investigate. But the decision does say that if once the police arrive, they themselves cannot see anything that leads them personally to believe that anyone is doing anything wrong, they don't have the authority to start pulling people over just because someone made a phone call. Once they arrive, they have to personally observe something to make them suspect that a law is being broken. And, as I said above, if a person really is impaired enough for it to be an issue, it should be pretty easy for a police officer to make such an observation, so it's not like this decision causes any real risk of allowing drunk drivers to evade the law. I know that during the several years I worked as a patrol officer, drunk drivers were pretty easy to spot. It isn't like the officer couldn't spare an extra ten seconds to confirm that the driver was impaired.

Posted by: Rob29 | October 21, 2009 10:07 AM | Report abuse

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