Sherry Tidwell was backing out of a parking space at a convenience store, and there happened to be a police officer in the parking lot. A man in the doorway of the store yelled to the officer, “Hey, you need to stop that vehicle. That lady is drunk.” The officer watched as Tidwell backed slowly out of the parking space and then drove slowly toward the road. The officer noticed that Tidwell had a blank stare, and the officer was taught that a blank stare may indicate impairment.
Officer Stops Defendant
The officer walked in front of Tidwell’s vehicle and gestured for her to stop. When the vehicle stopped, the officer told Tidwell to turn off the car and hand the officer the car key. As the officer talked with Tidwell, the officer smelled the odor of alcohol, saw Tidwell’s eyes looked bloodshot and glassy, and heard that Tidwell’s speech sounded slurred.
A second officer arrived and conducted a DUI investigation, including field sobriety tests. The second officer arrested Tidwell and charged her with DUI (called ‘OVI’ in Ohio). Meanwhile, the first officer talked with an employee at the convenience store. The employee told the officer he believed Tidwell was intoxicated, and he asked the unidentified customer to notify the officer of Tidwell’s possible intoxication. The unidentified customer had already left the premises.
Judge Rules in Favor of Defendant
Tidwell filed a motion to suppress evidence, and the judge granted the motion, finding the tip from the unidentified customer was unreliable. The prosecution appealed, and the court of appeals affirmed the judge’s ruling, concluding the unidentified customer’s anonymous tip lacked reliability, and the officer did not otherwise have justification to stop Tidwell. The prosecution appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court.
Ohio Supreme Court Determines Whether Stop was Reasonable
The Ohio Supreme Court analyzed whether the stop was an unreasonable seizure under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The Court began by citing to Navarette v. California for the proposition that an officer is authorized to make a traffic stop if the officer has reasonable suspicion to believe the driver is, or is about to be, engaged in criminal activity.
The Court next acknowledged that Ohio precedent (Maumee v. Weisner) placed informants into one of three categories: (1) anonymous informant; (2) known informant; and (3) identified citizen informant. However, the Court observed “the distinctions between these categories are sometimes blurred” and found the unidentified customer did not fit neatly into any of the three categories. Rather than evaluating the reliability of the tip based on the three categories, the Court determined the legality of the stop by considering the ‘totality of the circumstances’.
Totality of the Circumstances
In its evaluation of the ‘totality of the circumstances’, the Court noted the customer initiated face-to-face contact with the officer with no attempt to conceal his identity, and the officer was able to observe the customer’s demeanor and evaluate his truthfulness. In addition, the customer’s identity might later be discovered, so he could face legal peril if he knowingly made a false report. The court also found that the customer’s report was made contemporaneously with the alleged crime’s occurrence, so the tip had a further degree of trustworthiness. Finally, the customer’s report of Tidwell’s possible intoxication was corroborated by Tidwell’s blank stare and unusually slow driving.
Ohio Supreme Court’s Conclusion
The Court pointed-out that the stop was a brief, minimally intrusive seizure which enabled the officer to confirm or dispel the officer’s suspicion that Tidwell was operating a vehicle under the influence. Based on the totality of the circumstances, the Ohio Supreme Court held the officer had justification to stop Tidwell.
It is interesting that the Court did not ultimately decide the case by evaluating the three categories of informant tips developed in Maumee v. Weisner. According to Weisner, which was also a case decided by the Ohio Supreme Court, anonymous informant tips are relatively unreliable and therefore require independent police corroboration. Without directly overruling Weisner, the Court abandoned the three-category approach and adopted a ‘totality of the circumstances’ approach. It seems the court may have ignored the legal principle of stare decisis: determine cases according to precedent.
About the Author: Shawn Dominy is a leading DUI lawyer in Ohio and the founder of the Dominy Law Firm in Columbus, Ohio. He can be reached through his law firm’s website: Dominy Law Firm.