“FROM THE CLASSROOM”
By Ray Hill, Professor Emeritus, Santa Rosa Junior College
With the holiday season approaching, we typically see an increase in reports of suspected DUI's by 911 callers. This important bulletin clarifies best practices by patrol and dispatch personnel on how to respond to such calls, including the decision to "follow and observe" or the duty to stop the vehicle immediately.
Recently, I received an inquiry from one of the agencies I work with regarding a roll call discussion over “911” calls and DUI stops. The question was - If after receiving a dispatch, does there have to be some observation of a CVC violation or erratic driving before initiating an investigatory detention.
The case law answer is No! Here are a U.S. Supreme Court case and California Supreme Court case on point:
After an anonymous "911" cell report of reckless driving, a CHP officer pulled over a Ford pickup truck on Hwy. 1 in Mendocino County. The caller had reported that the truck “had run her off the road”; a full vehicle description was provided (including license plate number); and a mile marker and direction of vehicle travel (southbound on Hwy. 1) was provided by the reporting party. The vehicle was observed and followed for five minutes (while awaiting backup), but the officer viewed no illegal or unusual driving activity. After the stop, officers detected the overwhelming smell of cannabis emanating from the truck bed. They searched and found four large bags containing 30 pounds of cannabis. U.S. ruled the call included an eyewitness report of the incident, location, and complete vehicle description A “false tipster” would think twice before using “911” because of the available technology to capture, record, and trace the call source information. Running another car off the road suggests impairment that is characteristic of DUI. The officer’s failure to observe any additional suspicious driving did not dispel reasonable suspicion to detain (Navarette v. California, U.S., 4/14).
At 0143 hours, an anonymous caller phoned the CHP in Kern County reporting “an 80’s model blue van”, “heading northbound on Hwy. 99 north of Bakersfield at Airport Dr.”, was “weaving all over the roadway”. Two to three minutes later, an officer observed a blue van traveling northbound, pulled in behind it, but did not observe any Vehicle Code violations. The officer stopped the car and the defendant was arrested for DUI drugs and possession of heroin. Cal. ruled a caller who reports an erratic, possible drunk driver and describes the vehicle and its location will almost always be someone who witnessed the driving (firsthand knowledge). The caller reported the vehicle description, direction of travel and cross street, and there was a close time interval between the report and stop. “An erratic and possible drunk driver poses an imminent threat to public safety and there is a substantial governmental interest in stopping the driver as quickly as possible" - (Peo. v. Wells, Cal., 6/06).
In fact, waiting too much longer after observing the suspect vehicle may put you at risk of civil liability or department administrative action.
“An officer who is following a suspected DUI doesn’t enjoy the luxury of sitting back and waiting for more proof and undoubtedly would be criticized if an accident subsequently occurred” (Peo, v. Wells 2006, supra).
"Requiring the officer to wait for a driver to actually cause or come close to causing an accident before he can stop a vehicle would render the officer morally if not legally culpable for the result” (Lowery v. Gutierrez (2005) 129 Cal. App. 4th 926).
When I teach an Introduction to the Fourth Amendment block in the POST Public Safety Dispatcher’s Course, three areas are emphasized when talking to the “911” caller. Consider reinforcing this information when communicating with your dispatchers or copy this article and forward it to them.
- Obtain a specific description of driving activity, i.e. weaving across lanes, excessive speed (estimate), changing lanes without signaling. “cutting off” other vehicles, number of multiple violations, distance involved, etc. If the caller says something like “this guy is driving crazy” or “I think I’m following a drunk driver”, then follow-up questioning for more driving specifics is necessary for communication to the officer in the field.
- Obtain as complete as possible description of the suspect vehicle, sufficient to distinguish this car from any other car operating on the roadway.
- Obtain a location of the observed driving and direction of travel.
This dispatch information is further documented in your police report to document your reasonable suspicion to detain.
Please refer also to Bob Phillips,” The Fourth Amendment – Search and Seizure – An Update”, 22nd Edition, Pages 318-321.
“Report Drunk Drivers – Call 911” signs are conspicuously posted on our highways and freeways to encourage citizen reporting. The dispatcher and the investigating officer work as a team to conduct an investigatory detention and maintain public safety on our roadways.