A recent decision by the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals has affirmed that a private citizen may conduct a traffic stop on another private citizen. State v. Wilburn, (Tenn. Crim. App. 2015), was brought to the court’s attention on a certified question of law regarding the denial of the Defendant’s motion to suppress (make inadmissible) all evidence collected against him due to an unconstitutional traffic stop.
The Wilburn case involved a driver being pulled over and eventually arrested by a police officer that was acting outside of the officer’s municipal jurisdiction. The police officer in Wilburn was not aware he was outside his jurisdictional range at the time of the traffic stop, but the officer did observe the defendant vehicle weaving on more than one occasion. In Tennessee, the weaving or crossing over of the lanes on the road is a Class C Misdemeanor. Once the officer conducted the traffic stop on the driver, he smelled alcohol on the driver’s breath and a DUI arrest followed.
The Court of Criminal Appeals in Wilburn held that it does not matter about the jurisdictional constraints of the police officer because, “As a private citizen, Officer Croce was authorized to stop and arrest the defendant for these traffic violations.” The Court would go on to say that not only can a private citizen conduct a traffic stop but “Officer Croce was also authorized, as a private citizen, to arrest the defendant for DUI.” (emphasis added.)
In the ruling handed down in Wilburn, private citizens in Tennessee may arrest other private citizens not only for the commission of felonies, but also any public offense that is committed in the citizen’s presence. Therefore, under the Court’s ruling, because a traffic offense is a misdemeanor and a public offense, a traffic stop is proper and just when performed by a private citizen who witnessed the offense.
It is hoped that the right for private citizens to make a traffic stop – at least according to this court opinion – does not trump the constitutional rights and protections afforded to Tennesseans against unreasonable searches and seizures. In this author’s opinion, this ruling only encourages vigilante justice. As noted in the Wikipedia definition of “vigilante,” such people, “typically see the government as ineffective in enforcing the law; such individuals often claim to justify their actions as a fulfillment of the wishes of the community.” Imagine private citizens attempting to pull over other citizens for speeding or any other minor traffic violations and all of the potential dangers that may arise. It is a very slippery slope when one citizen is allowed to not only conduct a traffic stop but also make an arrest of another.
Police officers are trained and educated on proper procedures and safeguards when making a traffic stop. They have the means to request the assistance of other officers if necessary. I encourage citizens not to try to make a traffic stop or other seizure or arrest for a suspected drunk driver or other crime. Trying to stop another will likely result in a very bad, if not tragic, experience. Instead, call 911 if you observe a violation of the law that needs to be reported to the police.
About the Author: Steven Oberman has been licensed in Tennessee since 1980, and successfully defended over 2,500 DUI defendants. Among the many honors bestowed upon him, Steve served as Dean of the National College for DUI Defense, Inc. (NCDD) and currently serves as chair of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers DUI Committee. Steve was the first lawyer in Tennessee to be Board Certified as a DUI Defense Specialist by the NCDD.
He is the author of DUI: The Crime & Consequences in Tennessee, updated annually since 1991 (Thomson-West), and co-author with Lawrence Taylor of the national treatise, Drunk Driving Defense, 7th edition (Wolters Kluwer/Aspen). Steve has served as an adjunct professor at the University of Tennessee Law School since 1993 and has received a number of prestigious awards for his faculty contributions. He is a popular international speaker, having lectured at legal seminars in 30 states, the District of Columbia and three foreign countries.
You may contact Steve through his website at www.tndui.com or by telephone at (865) 249-7200.