By Maura Dolan, Times Staff Writer June 27, 2006
SAN FRANCISCO Law enforcement may stop and detain drivers based
on anonymous and uncorroborated tips that they were driving while
intoxicated, the California Supreme Court decided 4-3 Monday.
The state high court ruled that the California Highway Patrol acted
legally when it pulled over a woman outside Bakersfield, even though its
officer did not personally note any evidence of impaired driving. The
officer was responding to a telephone tip that the van was weaving.
A lawyer for Wells said California’s high court went further than any
court in the country in giving law enforcement the ability to pull over
motorists based on anonymous tipsters.
Elizabeth Campbell, a lawyer with the Central California Appellate
Program, noted that the state has signs urging motorists to report
suspected drunk drivers to the Highway Patrol. Because the ruling permits
anonymous tips, people motivated by road rage or personal vendettas may
now make such reports, Campbell said.
"They have just given a great tool to angry drivers," she said.
She said Wells will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which has ruled
that police cannot pat down someone to search for a weapon based on an
Tom Dresslar, a spokesman for Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer, said the court
"properly balanced" the competing interests of public safety and the
right to be free of government intrusion.
"It doesn’t make a lot of sense from a public safety standpoint to
require a law enforcement officer to wait until a dangerous situation
arises before doing something to stop it," Dresslar said.
Monday’s decision was the latest in a string of rulings that give
police broader powers in searches. Earlier this month, the state high
court ruled that police may enter a person’s home without a warrant in
some situations to administer a blood-alcohol test when a caller reports
the person had been driving while intoxicated.
The U.S. Supreme Court also decided this month that the government may
use evidence seized during a search in which officers with a warrant
failed to knock before entering a suspect’s home.
In Monday’s ruling, Justice Ming W. Chin, writing for the majority,
conceded that the court knew nothing about the person who reported the
"But we may reasonably infer that the tip came from a passing
motorist," Chin wrote. "Where else would it have come from?"
Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar, writing for the dissenters, said the
officer acted "without confirming any illegal or even suspicious conduct
"One of the hallmarks of the liberty guaranteed to persons in this
country is that agents of the government cannot arrest, seize or detain
them without a good reason," wrote Werdegar, who was joined by Justices
Joyce L. Kennard and Carlos R. Moreno.
The ruling in People vs. Susan Wells, S128640, stemmed from a stop by
CHP Officer Julian Irigoyen on California 99 north of Bakersfield three
years ago. The officer received a dispatch of a possibly intoxicated
driver "weaving all over the roadway."
The dispatcher said the vehicle was described as an ’80s model blue
van traveling north on California 99 near a certain exit. Irigoyen, who
was nearby, parked on the shoulder of the highway and waited.
Two or three minutes later, he saw a blue van traveling at about 50
mph. "The officer did not observe the van weaving, speeding or otherwise
violating any traffic laws, perhaps because he stopped the van so soon
after spotting it," Chin wrote.
The officer said Wells had constricted pupils and a dry mouth and
appeared nervous when asked to step out. He did a field sobriety test and
Later, a search of the car found a black suitcase containing several
syringes and heroin. Wells’ urine also tested positive for THC, an
ingredient in marijuana; cocaine; and opiates.
In ruling against Wells, the majority noted that police are permitted
to set up roadblocks to investigate drunk driving despite any specific
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