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June 27, 2006
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Calif. high court decides police can act on tips

Maura Dolan, Times Staff Writer
Los Angeles Times
Copyright 2006 Los Angeles Times
All Rights Reserved

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.

The driver, Susan Wells, 49, failed a sobriety test and was arrested. A subsequent search of her van found heroin. She was sentenced to 16 months in prison and appealed on the grounds that the CHP had stopped her improperly.

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 anonymous tip.

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 van weaving.

"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 at all."

"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 arrested her.

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 evidence. 
June 27, 2006

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