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A Challenge to OUI / DUI Stops From Anonymous 911 Callers

In a recent decision, the Massachusetts Appeals Court addressed the defendant’s challenge to the lawfulness of the stop of his car based on an anonymous caller’s 911 call to the police.  Prior to trial, the defendant filed a motion to suppress evidence, arguing that the police did not have reliable information to seize him for suspected drunk driving.  He argued that the subsequent field sobriety tests, which he allegedly failed, should have been suppressed as a result of the unlawful stop.  The appeals court affirmed his conviction and held that the government had sufficient proven that basis of knowledge and the veracity of the anonymous caller.

In this case, Massachusetts State Police received an anonymous 911 call reporting that there was a “drunk driver all over the road”; and the caller also provided the police with the vehicle’s plate number.  The state police then dispatched the information, as well as the fact that the registered owner was also currently on probation for drunk driving.  Upon hearing the dispatch, a state trooper responded to the registered owner’s, the defendant’s home.

The Massachusetts State Trooper arrived as the defendant was exiting his car and the trooper immediately approached him.  The trooper asked the driver to submit to various field sobriety tests, which the defendant reported failed; and also alleged that the defendant exhibited other signs of intoxication.  The defendant was subsequently arrested for Operating Under the Influence of Alcohol.

The defendant challenged the lawfulness of the stop and argued that, because the 911 caller did not provide his/her information, the tip was anonymous.  As an anonymous tip, the Commonwealth had the burden at the suppression hearing to establish that the anonymous 911 caller was ‘reliable’ by establishing that the caller had (1) a basis of knowledge and (2) that the caller had sufficient ‘veracity’ or trustworthiness.

The Massachusetts Appeals Court held that the anonymous 911 caller displayed a sufficient basis of knowledge because, from the information provided in the call, it could be inferred that the caller had made personal observations of the vehicle and had witnessed reckless driving.

As it pertained to the caller’s veracity, or whether he/she was trustworthy, the appeals court conceded that the question was a close call.  That the government is not able to establish the caller’s identity is not necessarily fatal to the analysis, as veracity may also be established by “demonstrating that the caller had just witnessed a startling or shocking event, that the caller described the event, and that the description of the event was made so quickly in reaction to the event as reasonably to negate the possibility that the caller was falsifying the description or was carrying out a plan to accuse another.”

Ultimately, the appeals court ruled that the Commonwealth had also established the anonymous caller’s veracity because the caller made the report contemporaneously with his/her observations of apparent criminal activity, i.e., the drunk driving, and that the caller therefore was under the stress or excited of a ‘startling or shocking event.’

The caselaw that has developed in recent years essentially broadens what events/statements may be characterized as sufficiently ‘startling’ or ‘shocking’ so as to deem statements by anonymous persons as ‘reliable’.  It appears that the appellate courts are placing weight on the public concern of drunk driving and the risk they pose to the public safety in characterizing reports of drunk drivers as ‘startling’ or ‘shocking’.

Boston Drunk Driving Lawyer Lefteris K. Travayiakis is available 24/7 for consultation on all Massachusetts Drunk Driving Charges and post-conviction appeals.  He can be reached directly at 617-325-9500 or by e-mail at lefteris@travayiakis.com.