Ohio Supreme Court To Decide Legality Of Stops Based On Anonymous Tips

License-plate-of-trooper-cruiserIf another driver becomes angry with you, that driver can easily call the police and report you as a drunk driver. The driver doesn’t have to give a statement to the police. In fact, the allegation can be completely anonymous.

Should police officers be permitted to stop you based only on another person’s anonymous tip? That question will be answered by the Ohio Supreme Court, as it recently agreed to hear the case of State v. Tidwell. The case could have broad implications, not for not just OVI cases, but for individuals’ Fourth Amendment protections in general.

State v. Tidwell
A police officer was at a gas station finishing his investigation of an unrelated traffic accident when a customer pointed to Tidwell’s car and said, “Hey, stop that vehicle, that lady is drunk.” The customer provided no further information and left the scene before the officer could get the customer’s name or any further details.

The officer saw Tidwell backing out of a parking space and motioned for her to stop. When Tidwell opened her window, the officer smelled alcohol and initiated an OVI investigation. As a result of that investigation, Tidwell was charged with OVI.  Tidwell filed a motion to suppress evidence in which she claimed the stop was not justified.

The Trial court ruled the officer did not have a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity to justify initiating the traffic stop based on the informant’s tip. The State appealed, and the First District Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s decision. The State appealed again, and the Supreme Court voted 4-3 to accept the case.

Informant Tips
There are three types of informant tips which typically form the basis for a traffic stop: anonymous tips;  identified citizen tips;  and tips from known criminal informants. The last category rarely applies in OVI situations. Instead, courts have evaluated whether tips from identified citizens and anonymous tipsters justify traffic stops.

When courts evaluate informant tips, the courts determine whether the tip is reliable enough to justify a stop. Courts have reasoned that tips from anonymous informants are typically less reliable than those given by an identified citizen and therefore require some independent police corroboration. However, the United States Supreme Court did not adopt that analysis in Navarette v California.

In the Tidwell case, the tip was from an anonymous informant. The customer did not provide a statement or contact information. As the First District observed, the anonymous tip did not contain any detail. There was no specific assertion regarding the alleged intoxication, such as the driver falling down or drinking in the gas station. A more detailed allegation may bolster the reliability of the tip. Additionally, the officer did not independently observe anything corroborating the tipster’s claim which would justify the traffic stop.

Unreasonable Seizures
Based on well-settled Ohio case law, it seems pretty clear the officer did not have a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity which would justify stopping Tidwell’s vehicle. The Ohio Supreme Court’s decision to hear this case raises some questions. Will the Court use this case to solidify Ohio case law on anonymous informant tips? Or might the Court use this case to change Ohio law on this issue?

If the Court upholds this traffic stop based solely on a bare bones, anonymous tip, it could open the door for police to permissibly stop a driver for almost any reason, even if the police have no reliable evidence the driver violated the law. A search or seizure needs to be reasonable, and this seizure was unreasonable.

Unfortunately, this seizure arose in the context of a DUI / OVI case. There has been a historical trend of courts around the country carving out exceptions to constitutional protections when they are confronted by DUI / OVI issues; what some have observed as “the DUI exception to the Constitution”. While drunk driving is a problem in this country, effectively combating the problem should not involve eroding individual rights.

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