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Supreme Court Supports Va. Ruling in Drunk Driving Case

October 21, 2009

WASHINGTON, D.C. --- A U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Tuesday, Oct. 20, cast doubt on the legal authority of a police officer to pull over a suspected drunk driver based solely on a caller's tip to law enforcement, the Los Angeles Times reported. 

Despite dissent from Chief Justice John G. Roberts, the Supreme Court let stand a Virginia Supreme Court ruling that a police officer can follow but cannot stop a suspected drunk driver's car until the officer observes the driver doing something suspicious, such as swerving into another lane. 

The action isn't a formal ruling and doesn't require other states to follow Virginia's lead. However, this case is expected to open the door for further legal challenges to police stops that are prompted solely by a called-in tip from another driver. Many states have upheld car searches prompted by a called-in tip, as long as the vehicle matches the description given, the L.A. Times reported. 

The Virginia Supreme Court ruling freed Joseph Harris of Richmond. He had been arrested one morning after a caller had reported seeing what appeared to be a drunk driver in a green Nissan Altima headed south on Meadowbridge Road. The caller, who identified himself to police, gave a partial license plate number for the vehicle. 

After he was pulled over, Harris allegedly stumbled out of his car and appeared clearly intoxicated when the officer tried to question him. But the Virginia Supreme Court ruled this was an "unreasonable search" because the stop was based entirely on a caller's tip, not on what the officer observed directly before Harris' car was pulled over. 

Virginia prosecutors, backed by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, appealed the Virginia high court's decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. But the justices turn down the appeal by a 7-2 vote. Both Roberts and Justice Antonin Scalia dissented.

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