Being arrested and charged with Driving Under the Influence (DUI) can be a traumatic experience. The consequences can be equally painful, even if you are not ultimately convicted of DUI. Drinking and driving charges can result in difficulty obtaining employment, along with disclosure responsibilities for certain background checks, and will hinder your ability to engage in day to day activities that require travel.
Motorists who are convicted of DUI will face added difficulties. Depending on the circumstances of the case, a DUI conviction can result in large fines, multiple years of probation, suspension of driving privileges for six months or more, and even jail time. Therefore, it is important to understand what can lead to traffic stops and questioning by law enforcement on suspicion of DUI.
Excluding the special legal exception for DUI roadblocks, law enforcement officers in California must have a proper legal basis for making a traffic stop. Normally, an officer's reasonable suspicion that a vehicle is involved in an ongoing crime creates the necessary legal basis.
One of the most shocking ways an officer can acquire reasonable suspicion is through an anonymous phone call.
What Is Reasonable Suspicion?
Reasonable suspicion is a legal standard established to determine when a law enforcement officer is justified in detaining and questioning a citizen for a brief period of time. In a traffic stop context, this means that an officer only needs a reasonable suspicion that a driver is breaking the law and order the car to stop. It is not necessary for the officer to initially have a particularized suspicion that the driver is drinking and driving, for example, but only that the driver has violated a traffic law.
The reasonable suspicion standard exists to protect people from being stopped and interrogated when there is no practical basis to suspect that the person being detained is committing an ongoing crime. Despite the importance of having a clear standard to apply, neither the legislature nor the courts have defined specifically what is required to establish reasonable suspicion.
The analysis used by the courts to test for reasonable suspicion generally does not rely on a single factor. Instead, to determine whether the police had reasonable suspicion that would justify a particular detention, the courts consider the totality of the circumstances by examining several facts. Those facts can include the apparent reliability of the information used by the detaining officer; vague reports of a possible crime or reports from a questionable source might weigh against the officer's suspicion being found reasonable. The particularity of the information used by the officer may also be salient. General citizen complaints of misconduct that cannot be connected to a particular person or vehicle, or mere hunches by the officer that criminality is afoot, would also likely not support a finding of reasonable suspicion.
Citizen Complaints and Officer Observations
Many traffic offenses such as a DUI do not require intent, which means that a police officer only needs to have clear and articulable facts indicating some likelihood that a person has violated the law in order to initiate a traffic stop. Without such facts, the stop will not be valid.
For example, suppose an officer witnesses a vehicle change lanes without signaling first. If the officer initiated a traffic stop on that basis, the officer could then lawfully check whether the driver holds a valid license to drive, whether the vehicle is compliant with registration and insurance requirements, and inquire about the driver's reason for making the unsafe maneuver. If a police department receives a citizen complaint that a vehicle of a certain description has been changing lanes without signaling, or committing some other violation, an officer can attempt to locate the vehicle to observe it.
If the officer observes the vehicle doing something prohibited by law, the officer can lawfully detain the vehicle and its driver to investigate. But what if the officer follows the vehicle and does not observe any illegal acts yet still initiates a traffic stop? And what if the underlying citizen complaint was made anonymously, preventing the detained driver from ever questioning the original accuser?
Anonymous Phone Calls
Last year the United States Supreme Court considered this exact scenario and held that the traffic stop was legal because the details the caller gave about the vehicle were very specific, matching the vehicle the officer pulled over, and because the Court presumed the 911 system is not susceptible to false reports of illegal activity.
In a scathing dissent, Justice Scalia described the infirmities of the majority's decision. The dissent first inventories all of the missing information about the anonymous caller that prevent any assessment of her credibility: the police did not know her name, nor her address, nor any other helpful information about her. Justice Scalia notes that since all the caller provided was a description and location of the vehicle, any anonymous caller doing the same could call in random vehicles and that would be sufficient to support a traffic stop.
The dissent concludes by summarizing the new legal standard announced by the majority that (1) anonymous reports of traffic violations are reliable if made through 911 and they correctly identify a car and its location, and (2) one reported occurrence of careless or reckless driving may support a law enforcement officer's reasonable suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs.
For that reason, DUI defense has reached a new level of criticality. Anyone accused of driving under the influence should speak with an experienced criminal defense attorney immediately. At the Law Offices of Virginia L. Landry, our attorneys will review your DUI charges and determine your best line of defense.
For more information about defending accusations of DUI or other criminal charges, visit www.orangecountycriminallaw.com. To set up a free initial consultation with one of our defense attorneys, call 866.902.6880 today.