Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Tuesday, June 27, 2006


Page 1


S.C. Upholds Traffic Stop Based on Anonymous Phone Tip


By a MetNews Staff Writer


Police officers may stop a vehicle based solely on an uncorroborated phoned-in tip that a car matching it’s description and location has been driving erratically, a divided California Supreme Court ruled yesterday.

“[T]he grave risks posed by an intoxicated highway driver justified the minimal intrusion of a brief investigatory traffic stop,” Justice Ming Chin wrote for the court, which upheld Susan Wells’ convictions for possession of heroin and driving under the influence, for which she was sentenced to 16 months in prison.

California Highway Patrol officer Julian Irigoyen testified he was patrolling Highway 99 in Kern County north of Bakersfield at 1:43 a.m. when he received a report of a possibly intoxicated driver “weaving all over the roadway.” The report identified the vehicle as an 1980’s model blue van traveling northbound on Highway 99 at Airport Drive.

Spotted Van

Irigoyen said he positioned himself on the shoulder of the northbound lanes north of Airport Drive and waited.  A couple of minutes later, he said, he spotted a van matching the description. He activated his lights and pulled the van over.  Irigoyen acknowledged that he had not observed the van weaving or violating any traffic laws.

Irigoyen said he determined that the driver was intoxicated and arrested her.

Wells’ urine later tested positive for marijuana, cocaine, and opiates. Police found heroin and syringes in the van.

Wells moved to suppress all the evidence on the grounds that  she was detained without reasonable suspicion.  When the trial judge denied her motion, she entered a negotiated plea of no contest, reserving the right of appeal, but the Fifth District Court of Appeal affirmed. 

Chin was joined by Chief Justice Ronald George, Justice Carol Corrigan, and Court of Appeal Justice Walter Croskey of this district’s Div. Three. Croskey sat in for Justice Marvin Baxter, who routinely recuses himself from Fifth District cases in which his brother-in-law, Presiding Justice James Ardaiz, participated.

“Police officers undoubtedly would be severely criticized for failing to stop and investigate a reported drunk driver if an accident subsequently occurred,” Chin said.

Justice Kathryn Werdegar, joined by Justices Joyce Kennard and  Carlos Moreno,  dissented.

 Werdegar argued that Chin’s “emotional” concern was “irrelevant” because it “misleadingly suggests that an invasion of personal privacy is justifiable under the Fourth Amendment if such invasion might unmask a criminal or prevent a crime.”

Werdagar said she was “not persuaded by the majority that this case reasonably can be distinguished from [Florida v. J. L. (2000) 529 U.S. 266], where the high court held that, when faced with an anonymous tip, police must confirm not only its innocent details but also some aspect of the illegality before detaining a person.”

Difficult Job

In J.L. police received an anonymous tip that “a young black male standing at a particular bus stop and wearing a plaid shirt was carrying a gun.” Police went to the location, recognized a person matching the description, but observed no illegality. “The officers [in J.L.] did not see a firearm, and [the defendant] made no threatening or otherwise unusual movements.” The Supreme Court unanimously reversed the defendant’s conviction.

Chin distinguished J.L from the case before it, saying, “[A] report of a possibly intoxicated highway driver, ‘weaving all over the roadway,’ poses a far more grave and immediate risk to the  public than a report of mere passive gun possession.”

Werdagar wrote:

“It is said that the police have a difficult job, and I do not disagree. In this case, however, the burden on the investigating officer was slight: he need only have followed defendant’s blue van a short distance to determine whether she was weaving or otherwise violating the traffic laws.”

The case is People v. Wells, 06 S.O.S. 3231.


Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company