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Supreme Court weighs in on traffic stop

Is it legal for a police officer to pull over a suspected drunk driver based solely on a caller’s tip?

The Supreme Court recently let stand a Virginia Supreme Court ruling that held a police officer can follow but cannot stop a suspected drunk driver’s car until the officer sees the driver do something suspicious, such as swerve in a lane.

Justice Roberts strongly dissented. “The effect of [this] rule will be to grant drunk drivers ‘one free swerve’ before they can be pulled over by the police,” Roberts said. “It will be difficult for an officer to explain to the family of a motorist killed by that swerve that the police had a tip that the driver of the other car was drunk, but that they were powerless to pull him over, even for a quick check.”

The Supreme Court’s action is not a formal ruling. Other states are not bound to follow the Virginia ruling. However, with that apparent support of the Supreme Court behind the Virginia ruling, it’s likely there will be more legal challenges in states that allow police stops based on anonymous tips.

Most state courts have upheld car searches based on a tip from a caller in situations where the vehicle matches the description given.

By a 7-2 vote, the justices turned down without comment an appeal from Virginia prosecutors, which was backed by Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Their argument was simple. More than 12,000 Americans die each year in alcohol-related crashes and drunk drivers need to be stopped and taken off the road as soon as possible.