A drunk driving citation probably doesn’t seem like a defining case for constitutional rights, but the Ohio Supreme Court will hear a case to determine whether police can search based on a civilian tip. This case has circulated the lower courts for over three years and has been a hot topic for prosecutors and defenders alike.
“That Lady Is Drunk”
On November 11, 2017, Sherry Tidwell pulled out of the parking stop at Symmes Township Speedway, only to be stopped by law enforcement.
According to court records, the officer was told, “You need to stop that vehicle. That lady is drunk.”
The officer says the man was told to call out to him by the Speedway clerk who sold Tidwell alcohol. According to prosecutors, the man is an “informed citizen.” This term refers to citizens telling the truth because they could face charges if their information is false.
The Constitutional Issue
The question the Ohio Supreme Court will be deciding is whether the tip actually came from an informed citizen and, if so, if that is enough to facilitate search and seizure. At this point, you’re probably wondering how that’s a constitutional rights issue.
There are three factors at stake in this case:
- The Fourth Amendment
- The Ohio Constitution
- Probable Cause
The Fourth Amendment
The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution protects people from unlawful search and seizure. Tidwell has successfully argued that a tip from an anonymous source is not sufficient evidence to warrant a lawful search, questioning whether the officer violated Tidwell’s Fourth Amendment right.
However, interpretation of the Fourth Amendment is less straightforward than you might think. Two interests must be weighed against one another in these cases:
- Intrusion on an individual’s rights
- Legitimate government interests like public safety
So, in the context of the Tidwell case, the Ohio Supreme Court will measure the intrusion on her right to protection from unlawful search and the government’s interest in keeping the roads safe by arresting a drunk driver.
The Ohio Constitution
Every state has political powers outside of the federal government. They manage their affairs, pass laws, and represent the constituency. While federal laws are the “laws of the land,” the states can choose to interpret, exercise, or amend those laws.
The Ohio Constitution includes a section about unlawful search and seizure similar in rhetoric to the Fourth Amendment, but with one key addition.
According to the Ohio Constitution, “[…] no warrant shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, particularly describing the place to be searched and the person and things to be seized.”
So, what does this mean? Essentially, the law says that law enforcement cannot search someone or seize their property without a warrant or probable cause supported by evidence. This is also where the Tidwell case gets sticky for prosecutors.
One of the more pressing issues, in this case, is that the officer did not have a warrant, and other than the tip, there was no reason for him to suspect that a crime might take place. Many argue that an anonymous tip is not enough evidence to arrest or search someone, especially without a warrant. However, there’s still one more question to answer: What about probable cause?
In any arrest, the key is probable cause. To prove probable cause, officers must have objective circumstances that lead them to believe the suspect committed or is about to commit a crime. This protects people from being arrested on a hunch instead of evidence.
Let’s look at an example: A police officer sees a driver who keeps weaving in between the lanes, braking suddenly, and speeding. They pull the car over and ask the driver to roll down the window, only to find a strong alcohol scent emanating from the vehicle and the driver. The driver’s behavior is also erratic, and empty beer bottles are littering the passenger seat. At this point, most people would say that the driver is drunk, and all signs point to a DUI. This is a textbook example of probable cause in action – the officer found nearly irrefutable evidence of drunk driving and arrested the driver on a DUI charge.
That wasn’t the case with Tidwell, where the officer had no reason to suspect her of driving under the influence other than the anonymous tip. Even though she was drunk, the officer searched her vehicle without a warrant and, in the opinion of many people, without probable cause.
The Court’s Decision
The Ohio Supreme Court has their work cut out for them as they prepare to hear the constitutional arguments from the Tidwell case. What the court will decide has yet to be determined, but their decision could have a huge impact on the Ohio criminal justice system.
The Meranda Law Firm will continue to actively follow this case and the implications it could have on our future DUI clients.