Tuesday, October 20, 2009

US Supreme Court says anonymous tips are not enough to justify a DWI stop

The United States Supreme Court voted 4-3 to deny review in Virginia v. Harris, a DWI case in which the Virginia State Supreme Court held that in order to justify a traffic stop based on an anonymous tip, the officer must observe dangerous driving.

In Harris, an anonymous tipster informed Richmond police that Joseph Harris was driving while intoxicated. The arresting officer, acting on this tip, stopped and arrested Mr. Harris for DWI, without observing any unsafe driving or traffic violations. Mr. Harris was convicted at trial for driving while intoxicated, but that conviction was overturned by the state Supreme Court.

In a strongly worded dissent, Justices John Roberts and Antonin Scalia decried the Court's denial of cert. Justice Roberts claimed the ruling gives drunk drivers "one free swerve" before they can be stopped legally by police. Justice Roberts continued: "It will be difficult for an officer to explain to the family of a motorist killed by that swerve that the police had a tip that the driver of the other car was drunk, but that they were powerless to pull him over, even for a quick check."

If you want difficult, Justice Roberts, try explaining to our children that we sacrificed the presumption of innocence, privacy and due process rights as well as constitutional protections for citizens in the name of public safety. Men and women have died defending those rights and protections and we gladly give them away in order to fight our bogeymen -- drunk drivers and terrorists.

It's easy to take away rights, liberties and protections for those who commit unpopular crimes and support unpopular causes -- but if we don't stand up and protect those rights now, one day we will wake up and they will be but a distant memory.

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