We have discussed anonymous tips in prior posts.  An anonymous caller tips the police to a potential drunk driver, often resulting in an OVI charge.  Looking closely at those anonymous calls, however, can be a critical part of defending against an OVI charge.  If the caller is anonymous, does not describe any actual criminal activity, is unreliable and/or the tip is not corroborated by police, the stop could be unconstitutional and the case thrown out.

One recent Ohio case demonstrates the importance of looking closely at the anonymous tip in an OVI case.

Anonymous Caller Reports “Suspicious Blue Van” Parked in a Driveway

Around 2:30 am, officers were dispatched a report of a “suspicious vehicle.”  An anonymous 911 caller reported a blue van parked in the driveway at a particular address and the caller didn’t know what it was doing there.  Although there had been some recent break-ins in the neighborhood, there were none at that address.

The caller called back soon after to say the van had left.   An officer saw the blue van and began following it.  As the officer came up on the van, the van quickly turned into an alley.  The officer believed the driver was being evasive, so he stopped the vehicle.

When the officer approached, he said he smelled an odor of alcohol coming from the driver.  He also spotted a marijuana pipe inside the door of the van.   The driver asked why he was being stopped and the officer told him he was responding to a call of a suspicious blue van.  The driver said it wasn’t him.

The driver turned over the marijuana and submitted to field sobriety tests.  He was arrested for OVI, possession of marijuana and possession of drug paraphernalia.

No Reasonable Suspicion to Stop the Van 

The driver-defendant’s attorney filed a motion to suppress.

The key issue in this case was whether the anonymous report of the “suspicious blue van” justified the officer’s traffic stop.

Police are permitted to make an investigative “Terry stop” if the police have reasonable suspicion that “the person stopped is, or is about to be, engaged in criminal activity.” United States v. Cortez, 449 U.S. 411, 417, 101 S.Ct. 690, 66 L.Ed.2d 621 (1981).

Here, this case involved an anonymous tip communicated to the officer by dispatch.  Where reasonable suspicion is based only on a 911 caller (informant) tip, the court must look at reliability of the tip.

An Anonymous Tip is Not Reliable

An anonymous tip is generally unreliable and his tip will usually require independent police corroboration. 

Here, the tip about a “suspicious blue van” does not support a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.  Looking “suspicious” is not in itself a crime nor is it an indicator that the person is engaged in criminal activity. There was no allegation, for example, that the car was weaving or driving erratically – just that it was parked in a driveway and didn’t seem to belong.

The report of a suspicious van here did not sufficiently indicate bad driving or other criminal activity to indicate the driver was engaged in criminal activity before to the stop. 

Because the traffic stop lacked articulable reasonable suspicion, all of the statements, field sobriety tests, breath tests, and drug paraphernalia evidence gathered after the stop were thrown out of court. 

State v. Shepard, 2014-Ohio-4611

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