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Can the Police Detain Me on Suspicion of DWI Based on an Anonymous Tip?

Misdemeanor DWI arrests in Texas often begin with a traffic stop. A police officer must first have “reasonable suspicion” that a traffic violation has occurred to initiate such a stop. This is a lower standard than either the “probable cause” required for arrest or the “beyond a reasonable doubt” necessary for a criminal conviction. Put simply, reasonable suspicion means the officer has “a particularized and objective basis for suspecting the particular person stopped of criminal activity.”

Houston Appeals Court Affirms Misdemeanor DWI Conviction

In forming reasonable suspicion, a law enforcement officer may rely on information provided by members of the public, such as an anonymous phone tip given to a 911 dispatcher. A recent Texas DWI case, Houston v. State, provides an illustration of how this can work. In this case, a Houston appeals court affirmed the misdemeanor DWI conviction of a defendant who challenged the legality of the traffic stop leading to his arrest.

This case began when an unidentified caller contacted 911 and told the dispatcher that the defendant–he was identified by name–was “driving recklessly in an older Buick car.” The caller also provided the defendant’s license plate number and that the car was parked at a convenience store.

The dispatcher contacted an officer on patrol, who went to the convenience store. The defendant’s car was not there. At that point, the dispatcher received a second 911 call about a “four-day gray car” with a license plate number similar to that of the car described by the first caller. The second caller said the driver “almost hit a trash can and that he appeared to be driving in oncoming traffic.”

The officer eventually found a tan car parked “diagonally” in an empty lot with the same license plate number given by the first caller. The officer found the defendant “passed out” in the driver’s seat. The officer said he smelled alcohol and that the defendant “could not balance himself upright” after exiting the vehicle. The officer also observed “more than five empty vodka bottles scattered in the car.”

The defendant was arrested and charged with misdemeanor DWI. He entered a guilty plea but reserved his right to appeal the trial court’s denial of his motion to suppress the evidence gathered during the traffic stop described above. On appeal, the defendant maintained the officer lacked “reasonable suspicion” to detain him at the time of his arrest.

The Texas 1st District Court of Appeals rejected this argument. Here, the officer had reasonable suspicion based on the anonymous tips given to the emergency dispatcher. The Court noted that a traffic stop “may be justified if the facts underlying the stop are observed by a civilian informant.” The trial court may determine an informant’s reliability based on a number of factors, including whether or not they are providing a “firsthand account and a detailed description of wrongdoing.” Here, both calls provided “first-hand reports” that suggested the defendant “had impaired balance and driving skills,” which were indications of drunk driving.

Contact Houston DWI Lawyer Tad A. Nelson Today

In any drunk driving case, you have a constitutional right to confront the evidence against you. An experienced Houston DWI lawyer can help make sure that the police and prosecution follow the law and respect your rights. Contact Tad Nelson in Houston, Galveston or League City today if you need representation. Call (281) 280-0100