An unpublished Court of Appeals opinion filed October 5, 2010 upheld a DWI stop that was based entirely on a citizen’s report. See State v. Lehmeyer. The officer that stopped the vehicle did not personally observe any driving conduct that would lead him to believe the driver may be in violation of DWI laws; however, the Court determined that since the officer’s observations did not dispel the citizen’s report, the stop was legal.
For a citizen’s reported suspicion of a drunk driver, the courts consider certain criteria key in determining truthfulness. Not just any report by a citizen of a suspected drunk driver will turn into a DWI stop. While a private citizen is presumed to be reliable by the courts, the courts also look to whether the person provided his or her name, a description of the suspicious driving conduct, as well as a description of the vehicle. The more criteria the citizen caller reports, the more reliable he or she is deemed. This criterion is considered by the courts in order to safeguard against people making false reports or calling in other drivers out of spite or other personal reasons.
The citizen’s report in the court case did meet the necessary criterion to be deemed a valid and truthful report. The officer located the suspected vehicle and followed the vehicle for about 3 blocks. During this time the officer did not observe any driving conduct that would justify a stop of the vehicle; however, based solely on the citizen’s report, the officer stopped the vehicle anyway.
While many previous court opinions have held that a police officer does not need to personally observe illegal conduct to justify an investigation, this recent opinion is particularly concerning because it shifts an impossible burden to the driver suspected of DWI. Yes, the citizen’s report gave the officer reason to start following this driver. However, when the officer did not observe any driving conduct consistent with the citizen’s report of the illegal driving conduct, the officer’s investigation should have ended there. Instead, the Court held that the driver suspected of DWI did nothing to dispel the citizen’s reported suspicions. This raises the question of how does a driver dispel a report of suspicion of DWI? Arguably, legal driving conduct that is inconsistent with the previous report from the citizen should dispel any suspicion. But, the Court without any indication of what would dispel the suspicion, held that legal driving conduct is not enough.
Public safety interests are at the heart of this opinion, but this ruling goes too far in permitting an officer to stop a vehicle when any Tom, Dick or Harry calls in a report and meets the standards to be deemed “reliable.” This opinion does nothing to safeguard against inaccurate reports being made under false pretenses. The police do have a duty to investigate a citizen’s report if certain reporting standards are met; however, if the officer’s observations are inconsistent with the citizen’s report or if the officer does not personally observe any conduct that would justify a stop that should be enough to dispel any suspicion, and, therefore, no basis for the stop would exist.
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