Michigan Supreme Court Reinforces Application of Terry v. Ohio in Ruling

Original Case Details

A woman was charged with operating while intoxicated with a child as a passenger and open container in a vehicle after a police officer pulled her over. The main issue in this case is how the police officer came to pull the woman over in the first place. A police officer was informed by dispatch that a 911 call was made regarding a woman who was being loud and obnoxious. The caller stated that the woman appeared to be intoxicated and was yelling at her children. The caller gave the vehicle’s make, model, color, as well as license plate number.

Within 30 minutes of the call, the officer saw a vehicle that matched the description given over the phone. The officer followed the vehicle for a bit and did not observe any illegal activity or driving infractions but pulled the vehicle over anyways. He did this “based strictly on the information” received from the 911 call. The woman was subsequently arrested and charged. She moved for a dismissal stating that the stop was unlawful.

The District Court agreed and dismissed the charges stating that there was no probable cause to stop the vehicle in the first place as the 911 call was not enough on its own. The prosecution appealed to the Circuit Court which affirmed the verdict. The Michigan Court of Appeals reversed the decision, siding with the prosecutor. The case then made its way to the Michigan Supreme Court for argument and decision.

Fourth Amendment Law Regarding Stops

The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution protects the rights of people against unreasonable searches and seizures by the government. A landmark case, Terry v. Ohio, allowed for a police officer to appropriately approach a person for the purposes of investigation of criminal behavior. A Terry stop allows an officer to make a brief detention only if the officer can articulate a reasonable suspicion for the detention. The reasonable suspicion must be based on what the officer sees or perceives relating to the defendant while the officer is observing the defendant. A reasonable suspicion is more than a hunch or guess, it requires some sort of basis of suspicion of criminal activity.

In this case, nobody knows who the 911 caller was, and the 911 call was never made part of the record. The police officer made it clear that the only reason for the stop was the information obtained from the 911 call. An anonymous tip can be enough if it helps support the inference of criminal activity.

The Supreme Court’s Decision

The Supreme Court found that the Court of Appeals failed to explain how an anonymous tip to support the inference of a traffic violation was enough on its own to warrant a stop. The anonymous tipster rightly identified the defendant’s vehicle, but the police officer needed more as even when he followed after the vehicle, he observed no signs of bad driving or intoxication. The officer needed more than just an unidentified anonymous 911 call to pull over the woman. Because she was stopped unlawfully, the court reversed the decision of the Court of Appeals and suppressed all evidence regarding her criminal charges gained after the stop. This decision by the Michigan Supreme Court amounts to a full dismissal.

How Does This Affect Me?

The Michigan Supreme Court reinforced the requirement for reasonable suspicion in traffic stops with this ruling. A police officer cannot solely rely on an anonymous tip in this manner in making a traffic stop. An officer must have a reasonable and particularized suspicion of some type of criminal activity to make a stop. Regarding a traffic stop, any civil infraction related to driving is enough to make a stop on its own. This is because the officer themselves observed whatever the alleged activity was.

This affects you anytime you are on the road. If a police officer is given broader power to pull people over, then they will do so. This limit on police officer power forces the police to have more than an anonymous phone call as the basis for a stop. If nothing more than an anonymous, unrecorded 911 was enough, then it would be fairly easy for police officers to use that as a justification for every stop, whether that statement is true or not.

The facts from this case show that the woman had an open container of alcohol in the car and likely had alcohol in her system. But this ruling supports the notion that the ends don’t justify the means. The police in this case cannot point to the evidence that was obtained illegally to support their case. If you have legal questions, then call us at Grabel Law so we can help!

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At Grabel & Associates, we bring over 100 years of combined experience in defending people in drug cases across the state of Michigan. Call us today for a free consultation at 1-800-342-7896 or contact us online.

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