Police can pull over a car that has committed no traffic violation based solely on vague accusations made in a 911 call, the Utah Supreme Court ruled Friday. The court considered the case of Jose Baltarcar Roybal whose live-in girlfriend, Annalee McCaine, called 911 after the pair had a fight August 8, 2005.
“The person that’s been living with me is an [expletive], and I want him the [expletive] out of here,” McCaine told the emergency operator. “He’s out putting stuff in his van… He’s going to be gone before you get here.”
McCaine said the pair had been drinking and that Roybal was about to drive off to the south. She provided a description of Roybal and his van. Ogden Police Sergeant Chat Ledford received the dispatch and spotted the van which he believed was driving “really, really slow” on 30th Street. Although Roybal had violated no traffic laws, Ledford believed the slow driving was a sure sign of intoxication and initiated a traffic stop.
The court considered at this point whether the officer’s actions were justified, as the Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. The question turned on whether the officer had reasonable, articulable suspicion that criminal activity had taken place before he detained Roybal. A trial judge believed the Ledford acted correctly, but the court of appeals disagreed. A divided high court sided with Ledford.
“Looking to the totality of the circumstances in the instant case, we believe the 911 call was sufficient to provide the dispatcher with reasonable suspicion that Roybal was driving under the influence,” Justice Michael J. Wilkins wrote for the majority. “Irrespective of the fact that McCaine was Roybal’s live-in girlfriend, she was an identified citizen-informant who is presumptively reliable. Her personal involvement with Roybal, on its face, neither weakens, nor strengthens, that presumption.”
The majority concluded that the McCaine’s drunken call to 911 offered sufficient evidence that Roybal was also intoxicated and therefore could be stopped unless the officer saw evidence to the contrary.
“Once a reasonable suspicion is reached by the originator of the information — in this case, the dispatcher — the responding police officer is entitled to rely on the information unless the officer’s personal observations or interaction with the suspect present indications to the contrary,” Wilkins wrote. “That is to say, if the suspect’s actions are not inconsistent with the reasonable suspicion, the police officer may pursue the suspect and stop him or her immediately.”
Justice Ronald E. Nehring disagreed that the stop was justified because the police officer was not acting on solid information.
“I am troubled by the inference made by the majority,” Nehring explained. “The information from the dispatch established only that Mr. Roybal was in a white vehicle and that he had something to drink. People drinking together can individually consume various amounts of alcohol, or no alcohol at all, and it is erroneous to assume that the mere fact that people are together means they have had the same amount to drink. Our court of appeals has soundly rejected the implication that the state can impute unlawful activity to hyper-cautious driving.”
Nonetheless, the court reversed the appeals court decision and upheld Roybal’s conviction for driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI). A copy of the ruling is available in a 32k PDF file at the source link below.