Why an anonymous tip is not enough to justify a police stop

A new Illinois Appellate court opinion was released this month concerning a common DUI fact situation: police stops based solely on anonymous tips.

The case is People v. Smulik, 2012 IL App (2d) 110110.

Here are the facts:

The defendant was drinking with a female companion at a restaurant.  They got into an argument, and he left and went to a bar.  Later, he got into his car, but decided to pull over and park in a gas station while he “cooled off” from the argument.  Meanwhile, the local police received a phone call from a woman who said she had seen the defendant drinking at both the restaurant and the bar.  She did not identify herself.  She told the police dispatcher that she thought the defendant was drunk and unable to safely drive.  She said she was following the defendant and gave the police a description of his vehicle.  Shortly thereafter, police arrived at the gas station, where defendant was sitting in his car, smoking a cigarette.  They blocked his car and approached him.  He had bloodshot eyes and an odor of an alcoholic beverage.

The trial court granted a Motion to Suppress and the Appellate Court affirmed.

In my opinion, the case was properly decided and was clearly supported by decades of case law on this issue.

In Illinois, a line of cases have developed when the police have received a tip of criminal activity.  These cases require that there must be “some indicia of reliability provided to justify the stop.”  People v. Messamore, 185 Ill.Dec. 892, 615 N.E.2d 762 (Ill.App. 3 Dist. 1993).  A two step determination must be made by the court.  People v. Crest, 136 Ill. Dec. 139, 544 N.E. 2d 825 (Ill.App. 2 Dist. 1989).   First, the Court must determine the reliability of the information, and second, there must be a showing that the officer took steps to corroborate the information.

In this case, there was an anonymous tip. I don’t think you have to be Sherlock Holmes to deduce that the caller was the defendant’s female companion, since how many other women would have would have known both places where defendant was drinking?  Nevertheless, she did not provide her name.

A case like this shows why some additional scrutiny is necessary when the police are relying on an anonymous tip.  Lets assume that the tipster was the defendant’s angry date.  Lets further assume that the defendant said or did something harmful to the tipster.  Is it not possible that she called the police just to get some measure of revenge on him? Knowing that he was not drunk, but that he had been drinking and would smell of alcohol?

Because anonymous tips can come from a vengeful enemy, the courts have required that the police obtain some corroborating evidence before they “seize” and detain someone.  In this case, there was no corroborating evidence of intoxicated driving, and the case was properly dismissed.

The bigger question for me is why was this case appealed, especially since it is clearly correct and in line with many precedents.  I believe it was appealed because the State’s Attorney’s office of DuPage was seeking to get the older case law overturned, and to get an opinion stating that if a tipster says a suspect drunk driver is westbound on Roosevelt Road driving an older gray Buick with license plate xyz; that a police officer can then pull over any vehicle matching that description without any corroborating facts to indicate that the motorist is truly unable to safely drive.

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