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NEW YORK SEARCH & SEIZURE – A PHONE TIP REPORTING A CAR DRIVING ERRATICALLY BY ITSELF IS INSUFFICIENT TO JUSTIFY POLICE STOPPING THE CAR [People v. Royko]

One of the first questions I ask a defendant charged with Driving While Intoxicated, Driving While Ability Impaired or Driving While Ability Impaired by Drugs or any type of possession crime such as drugs or guns, is what brought about his or her initial contact with the police. If their vehicle was stopped by the police, my next area of inquiry is “was the stop legal”? Today, with a cell phone in virtually every car, we are seeing more and more cases where motorists are reporting erratic driving to the police right from the road. The question therefore is: can the police stop a vehicle based solely on a phone tip that the vehicle was driving erratically? The answer is no.
In People v. Royko, 201 A.D.2d 863 (4th Dept. 1994), the police received a call reporting a car driving erratically. About an hour later, officers saw the vehicle parked outside a restaurant and later observed the vehicle driving down the street. The officers then stopped the vehicle, at which time they detected to odor of an alcoholic beverage and observed the driver to have bloodshot, watery eyes. The driver admitted to having two beers and was unable to perform standardized field sobriety tests. The driver was subsequently arrested for Driving While Intoxicated.
At the suppression hearing, the officer testified that his sole purpose for stopping defendant’s vehicle was the radio dispatch he had heard regarding the erratic driving an hour earlier. The officer made no independent observations. The Fourth Department held that the officers lacked a reasonable suspicion sufficient to stop a vehicle based upon a report that it was driving erratically an hour earlier. The officers made no independent observations of erratic driving and further they had no way of knowing if it was the same driver. The defendant’s suppression motion was therefore, granted.
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