Academic journal article The University of Memphis Law Review

Search and Seizure: Law Enforcement Officers' Ability to Conduct Investigative Traffic Stops Based upon an Anonymous Tip Alleging Dangerous Driving When the Officers Do Not Personally Observe Any Traffic Violations

Academic journal article The University of Memphis Law Review

Search and Seizure: Law Enforcement Officers' Ability to Conduct Investigative Traffic Stops Based upon an Anonymous Tip Alleging Dangerous Driving When the Officers Do Not Personally Observe Any Traffic Violations

Article excerpt

I. INTRODUCTION

A motorist using his cellular phone called the Blairsburg, Iowa police department and reported that someone in a tan and cream Nissan Stanza, or "something like that," with a license plate beginning with the letters W-O-C, was driving erratically in the northbound lane of Highway 169, eight miles south of Fort Dodge, Iowa.1 The unidentified caller stated that the car was being driven by a "complete maniac," who was passing on the wrong side of the road and cutting off other cars.2 Subsequently, the police dispatchers relayed the caller's tip to patrolling officers.3

Shortly after receiving the dispatch, an officer noticed a tan Nissan Maxima with a license plate that began with the letters WO-C in the northbound lane of Highway 169.4 The officer stopped the car without observing any erratic driving.5 The driver of the Nissan Maxima consented to a search of the vehicle.6 Officers arrested both the driver and the passenger after discovering illegal drugs in the vehicle and in the passenger's possession.7

At trial, the passenger moved to have the evidence obtained from the traffic stop suppressed on the ground that the officer did not have reasonable suspicion to make the initial traffic stop.8 The federal district court denied the motion to suppress, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed that decision.9 The Wheat court held that an anonymous tip alleging erratic driving may provide police with reasonable suspicion to conduct an investigative traffic stop, even when an officer does not personally observe any erratic driving or other illegal activity, because of the public safety concerns posed by erratic (and presumably drunk) drivers.10

The Eighth Circuit is the only federal appellate court to address the question of whether an anonymous tip may provide police with reasonable suspicion to stop an alleged erratic driver when an officer does not personally observe a traffic violation. Many state courts, however, have addressed this question.11 Some courts have held that an anonymous tip, without police corroboration of the alleged traffic violation, is unreliable and cannot provide police with reasonable suspicion to initiate a traffic stop.12 Other courts, conversely, have held that such an anonymous tip may provide police with reasonable suspicion to initiate a traffic stop because of the public safety concerns posed by erratic or drunk drivers.13

This note examines the policy and legal reasons for finding that such traffic stops are permissible under the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution. The Note first reviews the United States Supreme Court's treatment of investigative stops and anonymous tips. The Note then surveys the decisions of those courts that have held that such traffic stops are unconstitutional, as well as the decisions of other courts that have held such stops to be constitutional. Finally, the Note evaluates and discusses the opposing viewpoints of this issue. The Note argues that an anonymous tip alleging erratic or drunk driving may provide police with reasonable suspicion to initiate a traffic stop because of the danger that erratic and drunk drivers pose to the public.

II. AN OVERVIEW OF INVESTIGATIVE TRAFFIC STOPS

The Fourth Amendment prohibits "unreasonable searches and seizures,"14 and an investigative traffic stop is a seizure within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment.15 The United States Supreme Court has expressed a preference that police conduct searches and seizures pursuant to a warrant.16 Circumstances exist, however, in which police may conduct warrantless searches and seizures.

A. Terry v. Ohio and the Reasonable Suspicion Standard

In Terry v. Ohio,17 the United States Supreme Court held that a police officer may stop and briefly detain an individual without a warrant if the officer lacks probable cause for an arrest but believes that the suspect is, or is about to be, engaged in criminal activity. …

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