Most traffic stops, whether it is just a traffic ticket situation or one that leads to criminal charges like DUI or possession of drugs, result from a police officer claiming to observe a person violate some traffic law. It is not common for police officers to make a traffic stop based on prior information with the exception of certain drug investigations. However, a police officer may be permitted to stop a driver based on a tip from a concerned citizen.
A traffic stop is considered a seizure under the Constitution. This means that a police officer cannot conduct a traffic stop without specific, reliable evidence of criminal activity or at least a traffic violation. As indicated, normally that comes from a patrol officer’s own alleged observations. Less often, police officers will follow up on information provided by a concerned citizen who has flagged down an officer or called 911. The question then is whether the police officer is permitted to stop a person based on such a tip.
In a recent case south of Jacksonville, Florida, a driver called 911 and said that a suspect was driving recklessly on the highway and almost went off the road a few times. The caller gave specific information about the suspect’s vehicle and also provided her own name and contact information. A police officer responded and stopped the suspect. This ultimately led to a DUI arrest of the suspect.
The criminal defense attorney moved to suppress any evidence of the DUI based on the argument that the initial stop was not valid. The criminal defense lawyer argued that the police officer did not observe the suspect drive recklessly or violate any traffic laws so he could not stop the suspect based on an uncorroborated tip from a citizen. There was no way for the police officer to determine if the citizen’s information was reliable or the citizen had some other motive to call the police on the suspect.
The court disagreed and determined the stop was lawful. The court held that there are times when an uncorroborated tip can be sufficient for a police officer to make a traffic stop. In this case, the information could indicate that the driver was driving while impaired from drugs or alcohol, i.e. DUI. Therefore, the police officer had a right to investigate both to see if a crime was being committed and also to determine if the suspect or other drivers might be in danger. As for the reliability of the information, if the citizen made an anonymous call, there is a good chance the stop would have been illegal. However, since the citizen provided her name and contact information, this lended more credibility to the caller’s information under the law.