There is no doubt that the defendant Joseph A. Moses Harris, Jr. was driving drunk when the police pulled him over. Police had received an anonymous tip, including a partial license plate as well as his name, but the arresting officer did not see Harris break any traffic laws. The Virginia Supreme Court, in a 4-3 decision, overturned Harris conviction for drunk driving, requiring the officer to see suspicious activity in order to have probable cause to stop the motorist.
Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court, by a 7-2 vote, denied certiorari to the state of Virginia seeking to appeal the Virginia Supreme Court ruling. By doing so, the Supreme Court let the Virginia ruling stand. The issue is whether Harris Fourth Amendment right to unlawful search and seizure outweighs societys right to protect the safety of its citizens. The Virginia Supreme Court gave priority to the former.
The appeal from Virginia prosecutors was backed by Mothers Against Drunk Driving. There was no written decision by the Court in Virginia v. Harris, 558 U.S. ___ (2002); thus it is unclear why it declined to review the case. Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., joined by Justice Antonin Scalia, wrote a pointed dissent excoriating the failure to review the case. Chief Justice Roberts dissent has already come to be known as the one free swerve dissent.
Roberts noted that close to 13,000 people die in alcohol-related car crashes a year, which roughly equals to one death every 40 minutes. He wondered how a police officer could explain to the relatives of a victim injured or killed by a drunk driver in a motor vehicle accident that the officer could do nothing until the officer saw something suspicious. Justice Roberts also felt that whether or not the Virginia holding is correct, inasmuch as the question has divided federal and state courts, the Supreme Court should have stepped in and made the rule clear. Most state courts, including those in California and Illinois, have upheld car searches based on a tip from a caller, so long as the vehicle matches the description given. But other states do not uphold the validity of such searches.
Roberts noted that hotlines and other services encourage the public to report suspected drunk drivers. An example of what he refers to is that Los Angeles and a host of other California cities use electronic roadside message boards located on their freeways to tell drivers to Call 911 to report drunk drivers. In defense of the Virginia Supreme Court, it relied upon U.S. Supreme Court precedent holding that police cannot frisk a pedestrian based solely on an anonymous call.
In that case, a caller said a youth with a plaid shirt was carrying a gun. But the Chief Justice noted that the situation of a person driving drunk may be distinguishable because with drunk driving the danger is imminent, and the search of a vehicle is typically less intrusive than the search of a person or a house. Having seen dangerous driving on the road and calling 911, it is scary to think that the driver may not be stopped as soon as possible.
Justice Roberts is correct in that when I’ve seen this type of driving, it does seem that disaster is imminent. It does also seem that someone could misuse 911 to harass someone with a false tip. It seems to me though that if someone is truly driving while impaired, it should not take long for the police to see something sufficiently sufficient to give probable cause to a stop. The case is likely to encourage more legal challenges to police stops that rely solely on anonymous tips.
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