By on May 19, 2010

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.

Source: Utah v. Roybal (Supreme Court, State of Utah, 5/14/2010)


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26 Comments on “Utah Supreme Court Allows DUI Stop On Vague 911 Call...”

  • avatar

    I think “we’ve been drinking,” especially coupled with the slow driving, is enough to warrant a traffic stop, and I think I have pretty dang high 4th amendment standards.

  • avatar

    Another drunk off the road. I have no sympathy for the guy. I drive and I drink, but I do not drink and drive.

    If Officer Ledford had taken no action and killed someone, what would the outcry be? It would be interesting to see some statistics on speed vs intoxicated driving. I suspect the results would show a good correalation between slow speed and drunk driving.

    • 0 avatar

      So you are telling me you’ve never gone out to dinner, had a glass of wine or a bottle of beer and then driven home? I’m just asking as I have heard that restaurants make their money on alcohol sales not on their food, so with the large number of restaurants, there must be a lot of liars that say that they don’t drink and drive. Like I said, I’m just asking…

    • 0 avatar

      At one time I would do just that. I do not any more. Losing someone close to a drunk driver changes your perspective. I can no longer justify an attitude of “buzzed but still under the limit”. As a result, I am often the self-appointed DD unless one of my friends take on that responsibility.

  • avatar

    I’m against the Utah Supreme Court ruling, because if a 911 call is reasonable suspicion, cops may have friends or family or other cops call 911 on a person they want to harass or arrest. You can also have cops arrest or harass people you don’t like by calling 911 on them.

    • 0 avatar

      You can also be charged with abuse of 911 and harrassment.

      In Indiana, I have seen signs on the roadside urging to call 911 to report erratic driving. The majority of people would never abuse the 911 system for this or any reason. Some states have separate numbers for reporting non-emergency incidents like suspected DUI’s or disabled vehicles.

    • 0 avatar

      I guess my point is moot since people can already call law-enforcement or Department of Homeland Security and report suspicious activity or a threat. This ruling actually does not give a corrupt official anymore power to harass via proxy, then he/she already has. In truth the police are only supposed to search when the officer has seen or is notified of evidence of a crime. I guess that the girlfriend’s call is evidence of law-breaking, i have not read the transcripts but if she does not mention that he was drinking then the call isn’t evidence of lawbreaking. According to the article it did mention that he had done “some” drinking, depends on what “some” means a person can ingest on beer can and still have a BAC low enough to drive legally. Today’s lesson is if your going to inform the police of somebody driving drunk be specific or estimate their alcohol consumption to be at or higher than the amount needed to break the law.

  • avatar

    In Ontario we have road signs,with a phone number to call if you suspect impaired driving.

    I agree with 1996 MEdition. The cops got a drunk of the road. The end justifies the means.

    • 0 avatar

      In this case it was determined that the means justified the end. The 911 call, combined with slower than normal driving gave the officer probable cause for the stop.

  • avatar

    I’m no fan of granting excessive power to the police, but I don’t see much of a problem with this decision. Many areas in the US have signs similar to what mikey noted in Ontario, encouraging the reporting of impaired drivers. I know Ogden well, and while I don’t recall seeing such signs there, they apparently appreciate the heads-up as much as any other jurisdiction.

    Unfortunately, the potential for unwarranted harrassment exists as stationwagon wrote, but the same potential is there for citizen reporting of any activity. In this case, I think the court correctly allowed for the local authorities to exercise their discretition based on the 911 call.

  • avatar
    Dave Skinner

    Seems to me an accusation of harassment would be more valid if harassment had actually occurred. Based on the facts, the girlfriend accused the driver of drunk driving. The police stopped him and he was in fact drunk. If the driver had passed a BAC test, I might buy the argument.

    I understand the lawyer’s argument: Responding to a pissed off girlfriend allows her to use the police as a tool to harass her boyfriend.

    But this facts of this case establishes that an accusation from a pissed off girlfriend may in fact be valid. As some have already stated, ignoring such information could threaten public safety.

  • avatar
    George B

    Have people forgotten how to drive home after a night of moderate drinking? Select slow and easy route, set the cruise control for the speed limit, and focus on lane position. If stopped, pretend to be lost and ask for directions.

  • avatar

    A cop can follow any of us for a couple of miles or just sit on the side and wait for us to pass to find some reason to pull us over. Can’t see your tags (I had that one myself), was your seat belt on, a little over the limit, etc.?

    In my town I’ve witnessed speed traps right where the speed limit increases for those drivers that speed up a little too soon. Plus when a new pub opened, the local cops started pulling over cars specifically leaving the restaurant. What stopped this was when the owners offered the cops a discount on food. Then last fall I was pulled over for what she said was 83 mph in a 65, when I’m 100% positive I was doing 73 (it’s a Civic with that LARGE digital display). But hey, when our citizens are a bunch of scammers, why not the cops too? (No offense to you law-abiding cops… “Don’t tase me bro!”)

  • avatar

    Getting a drunk driver off the road is of the utmost importance. If the defendant wasn’t legally drunk while driving and convicted of it there wouldn’t have been the appeals. Let’s face reality, the guy was doing everything legally possible to avoid a justified DUI conviction. We all know that the police can pull over anyone anytime they want if they have legal justification or not. This guy got pulled over, was drunk and got arrested and convicted, end of story.

    I am no fan of infringement of constitutional rights by the police or anyone else but I am a big proponent of taking drunk drivers off the road. Some states have mandatory sobriety checkpoints which have been ruled legal, if this guy wasn’t driving while drunk there would be no story here.

  • avatar

    If the officer was truthful about the guy driving “really, really slow” that’s reasonable cause. I face this kind of driver every day in UT, especially in the left lane. I wish I could pull them all over; maybe they’re all drunk too. But restaurants only serve 3.2 in UT so that’s not likely…

  • avatar

    DUI is simply revenue generation scheme like most DMV rules. IF they really wanted to get drunk people off the road, the legal limit would not be so low. I would bet that >50% of people who go out to a bar or dinner with drinks are legally drunk, but >50% sure as hell are not dangerous drivers.

  • avatar
    William C Montgomery

    “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.”

    Was there a search? Was there a seizure? I don’t see how the 4th Amendment applies here. 911 gets a phone call about a domestic incident and a dispatch is made. At that point, what’s the problem with a cop pulling the guy over to determine whether everything’s okay? If the guy hadn’t been drinking, he would have been cut loose after a couple questions. No harm. No foul. No search. No seizure.

    • 0 avatar

      A discretionary traffic stop by a law enforcement official is classified as a seizure of your person as in that case, a reasonable person would not feel they have they right to leave whenever they want. Seizure can be done by actual force (handcuffs) or a show of force.

  • avatar
    black turbo

    On most police cars in Ohio, the license plate is a sheet of cardboard with 1-800-GRAB-DUI in large letters.

  • avatar

    Although I too believe that the main factor driving (no pun intended) our drunk driving laws is revenue generation and not safety, I certainly have no desire to debate the issue. Current public sentiment towards people who break these laws borders on taking them out behind the courthouse and blowing their heads off with the closest service weapon.

    However, it is quite troubling to see so many citizens willfully giving away their constitutional rights if doing so will have a perceived detrimental effect on someone or something they don’t like.

    You can count on lawmakers removing as many of our freedoms as we allow, always in the name of ‘making us safer’. Now, if I’m in Utah, it’s OK for a LEO to kick the door of my car open and arrest me with no evidence of a crime being committed other than an anonymous phone call to 911. I just don’t understand how anyone thinks that’s acceptable.

    • 0 avatar

      Nobody’s stripping you of your “freedoms” here. A witness tipped off the police that a crime (DUI) was in progress. The police caught and charged the perpetrator based on that tip. So what’s wrong with this?

    • 0 avatar

      Don’t make stuff up to feed your paranoid libetardian fantasies. This situation did not involve “an anonymous 911” call. The complainant was his girlfriend. The cops knew who she was and could follow- up with her as needed. In addition, the officer observed the suspect’s driving and determined that he was driving slower than conditions warranted, as drunks and stoners often do. Non- anonymous complainant + observed erratic driving (not reckless, but not normal either) = reasonable suspicion in spades.

    • 0 avatar

      Operating a vehicle on public roads is a privilege, not a right.

  • avatar

    Observed very erratic unsafe driving on one of Omaha Nebraska’s main thoroughfares a few years back. Not high speed but what I observed led me to believe a wreck was imminent.

    Pulled over and used a phone booth to inform 9-1-1.

    The female answering began a series of multiple questions after I gave location, direction of travel, plate number, and vehicle direction.

    Are you sure the vehicle is being driven erratically? What makes you think they have been drinking? Could you be mistaken? Were they speeding? Did they stop for no reason at all? Are they impeding traffic flow?

    I answered the questions, mentioning the many out-of-the-ordinary driving behaviors I had witnessed, all offering evidence the driver was impaired.

    On and on the questioning went and I could hear other dispatchers in the background answering their calls with “my” dispatcher not dispatching a cop….. I could hear keyboards being used in the background but I believe “my” dispatcher was doing nothing to send a cop….. just continued questioning.

    When some of the questions were repeated I soothing informed the female that I sincerely hoped if the impaired driver I was reporting harmed or killed another that I truly hope it was a close relative or family member of hers and with a hearty “screw you” I hung up the pay-phone and left.

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