Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Stop of Driver Based on Shout of ‘That Lady is Drunk’ Permitted

A state trooper was parked in a service station lot doing paperwork when a customer directed the officer’s attention to another patron’s car and yelled: “Hey, you need to stop that vehicle. That lady is drunk.”  

The trooper stopped the driver, revealing her intoxication, and the Ohio Supreme Court ruled today that this intervention did not violate the woman’s constitutional rights.

In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ruled the unknown informant’s tip and the officer’s own observations were sufficient to permit the officer to briefly detain Sherry Tidwell without violating her constitutional rights against unlawful searches and seizures.

The decision reversed a First District Court of Appeals ruling that upheld Tidwell’s contention that the stop was unlawful and she could not be charged for driving under the influence of alcohol (OVI).

Writing for the Court, Justice Michael P. Donnelly stated that given the circumstances and the information available to the officer, it was reasonable for him to approach the vehicle in a public area and briefly detain the driver to make “a most basic inquiry as to whether an immediate danger to public safety existed.”

Shout Leads to Stop
In November 2017, Ohio State Highway Patrol Sergeant Jacques Illanz directed two motorists who collided on a busy Cincinnati-area road to pull into a nearby Speedway service station parking lot. Illanz was completing the accident report when a man standing in the doorway of the Speedway yelled to him.

The man directed Illanz’s attention to an SUV backing out of a parking space. Tidwell was the SUV driver. Illanz did not know the identity of the man, who left after making the comment. Illanz later learned the man was a customer and that a store clerk had just sold Tidwell alcohol. The clerk, concerned that Tidwell was intoxicated, told the unidentified customer to make Illanz aware of Tidwell’s intoxication.

Illanz watched Tidwell’s vehicle back out of the parking space at an unusually slow speed and move slowly forward to the heavily trafficked road. Illanz later testified that he saw a blank stare on Tidwell’s face and said from his training and experience that a blank stare may indicate impairment.

Illanz walked in front of Tidwell’s vehicle and gestured for her to stop. He estimated that 30 seconds elapsed between the time the customer yelled and when he stopped Tidwell.

Illanz asked Tidwell to roll down her window, turn off the engine, and hand him her keys, which she did. The trooper began asking Tidwell questions about where she was and where she was going. Illanz detected a strong odor of alcohol coming from the vehicle and observed Tidwell’s eyes were bloodshot and glassy. He said it took a “good couple of minutes” for her to produce her driver’s license because of her slow and exaggerated movements and that she maintained a blank stare when handing it to him. She told Illanz she was heading home and had been at a friend’s house, but that she had not been drinking alcohol.

Arrested Driver Contests Stop
Hamilton County Deputy Sheriff Randy Reynolds arrived later at the service station, having been dispatched to the vehicle accident that Illanz investigated. Illanz told Reynolds why he stopped Tidwell. Reynolds continued to question Tidwell, then administered a series of field sobriety tests, which indicated she was impaired. She was arrested and charged with OVI.

Tidwell filed a motion to suppress the evidence in Hamilton County Municipal Court, arguing the stop violated her constitutional rights. The trial court ruled in her favor, finding Tidwell had not driven erratically, had not been involved in an accident, and that the anonymous tip from the unidentified customer was “essentially unreliable.”

The Hamilton County Prosecutor’s Office appealed the decision to the First District Court of Appeals, which affirmed the trial court’s decision. The prosecutor appealed to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case.

Supreme Court Explains Stop Standards
The Court agreed to consider whether a tip made by face-to-face contact between an unidentified citizen and a police officer is enough for the tip to merit a high enough degree of reliability, and that independent police corroboration is not needed to make a valid stop of a criminal suspect, Justice Donnelly explained.

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. However, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1968 Terry v. Ohio decision provides an exception allowing police officers to make an investigatory stop if the officer has reasonable suspicion to believe a person is or is about to be engaged in criminal activity, the Court’s opinion stated. The Court stated it had to determine whether the information Illanz had available to him gave him reasonable suspicion to initiate the investigatory stop that would lead to Tidwell’s arrest.

Prior court decisions have placed informants into three general categories to help determine the reliability of tips provided to law enforcement – anonymous informants; known informants (someone from the criminal world who previously provided reliable tips); and identified citizen informants. The opinion stated that tips from anonymous informants are considered less reliable and require police corroboration before a suspect can be stopped. Information from citizen informants is generally deemed reliable and not in need of corroboration because the citizen faces the threat of arrest for making a false report, the Court explained.

The prosecutor argued the trial court wrongly considered the service station customer to be an anonymous informant whose tip was not corroborated by Illanz before he investigated Tidwell. Even though Illanz never learned the identity of the customer, the face-to-face interaction qualified the man as a citizen informant whose tip was reliable, the state maintained.

Supreme Court Analyzes Vehicle Stop
The customer does not fit squarely into any of the informant categories, the opinion stated.

“Rather than attempt to force the Speedway customer into one of the categories, we determine the reasonableness of this investigatory stop by considering the totality of the circumstances as they were known to Sergeant Illanz prior to the time he stopped Tidwell, together with reasonable inferences that could be drawn from the circumstances, keeping in mind that each piece of information may vary greatly in its value and reliability,” Justice Donnelly wrote.

The informant made no attempt to conceal his identity and could not know whether through surveillance video or investigation that his identity might be discovered, the Court noted. And the informant was offering the tip as the incident was happening, expecting that Illanz would check out Tidwell and prove him right or wrong, giving the tip more reliability, the opinion stated. There was no apparent cause for the trooper to question the informant’s motive and divert his attention from observing Tidwell’s driving, the Court noted.

Within 30 seconds of the tip, Illanz observed Tidwell’s slow driving and blank stare. The Court noted a “motorist’s blank stare could be due to any number of innocent noncriminal circumstances,” but Illanz demonstrated that his training and experience shows a blank stare is consistent with impaired driving.  The Court concluded that Illanz stopped Tidwell because he believed she was a public-safety concern, and given the information available to him, Illanz was justified in making the stop.

The Court ruled the motion to suppress the evidence was incorrect and remanded the case to the municipal court for further proceedings.

2020-0290. State v. Tidwell, Slip Opinion No. 2021-Ohio-2072.

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