A traffic stop is a legal "seizure" which implicates constitutional protections. If a seizure is not supported by a warrant issued by a judicial official, the seizure must be made pursuant to one of several exceptions to the warrant requirement. One widely known exception to the general warrant requirement occurs when law enforcement has a "reasonable suspicion" that the driver has committed a traffic infraction. The reasonable suspicion that the driver has committed a traffic violation provides a lawful basis for the officer to stop the vehicle and temporarily detain its occupants while the offense is investigated. Any other law violations discovered pursuant to the traffic stop may be investigated as well.
Anonymous Tip Lead to Traffic Stop
Recently the North Carolina Court of Appeals reviewed a stop that was based not upon the officers' observations but on an anonymous tip. The stop in State v. Carver led to a DWI investigation and subsequent arrest. Courts are typically skeptical of stops based upon anonymous tips, and require that they be supported by "sufficient indicia of reliability" meaning that the officers need to make observations consistent with the anonymous tip sufficient to justify the constitutional intrusion.
DWI Evidence Suppressed
In Carver the anonymous informant reported that they observed a truck pulling a car out of a ditch. There was no description of the truck, driver, or car. Approximately 15-20 minutes later, a deputy observed a Cadillac parked at an angle in a nearby driveway. When he kept driving, he saw a truck driving 15-20 mph below the speed limit. The only justification the deputy provided for the stop was the very sketchy information provided by the anonymous informant. The eventual DWI defendant was in the passenger seat of the truck, and after the deputy performed an investigation he decided that the passenger had been driving while subject to an impairing substance. The Court ruled that information found as a result of the traffic stop must be suppressed as the result of an unjustified warrantless seizure. The deputy did not himself develop reasonable suspicion that the driver of the truck had committed a violation of traffic laws, and the anonymous tip was insufficient to establish identifying characteristics that he could corroborate.
Since all the evidence discovered as a result of the traffic stop was suppressed, there was no evidence remaining to supporting the impaired driving charge and the case was dismissed. The decision did have a dissent, which means it may be taken up to the Supreme Court, but the ruling stands on pretty solid footing regarding the law of anonymous tips, which traditionally are not considered to be reliable absent considerable corroboration.
Our attorneys have experience litigating driving while impaired cases, and are available for a free teleconference to discuss your situation and how we might help. Fill out the contact form in the margin, or give us a call at 919-828-1456 to schedule a consultation.