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The Tennessee Supreme Court is in sync with Chief Justice John Roberts on this one: The law shouldn't grant drunken drivers "one free swerve" to endanger the public.
The state court ruled yesterday
anonymous tips are sufficient reason for police to stop suspected drunken drivers. But Virginia's Supreme Court tossed out a drunken-driving conviction in an almost identical case. The police officers who made both arrests didn't see any traffic law violations but made their stops based on anonymous tips.
The majority of the U.S. high court agreed not to consider that Virginia case yesterday, but Roberts gave a written dissent
. He said the Virginia court's decision will put people in danger, the same argument used by state Justice Sharon Lee in her opinion yesterday. Roberts wrote:
"The decision below commands that police officers following a driver reported to be drunk do nothing until they see the driver actually do something unsafe on the road -- by which time it may be too late."
Most courts have said it doesn't violate the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure to pull over drunken drivers based on anonymous tips from programs like the "Drunk Busters Hotline." But some courts, including some in Wyoming, Massachusetts and Connecticut, have disagreed. Roberts wanted the Supreme Court to step in and make the law clear.
"The stakes are high. The effect of the rule below will be to grant drunk drivers 'one free swerve' before they can be legally pulled over by police."
The thinking here runs counter to all sorts of traditional beliefs about the way our justice system ought to work. Whatever happened to the right to confront one's accuser? It's not hard to imagine a case of road rage in which one angry motorist phones in an anonymous false tip about the other. Then again, tell all that to the family of someone killed by a drunken driver.