If you're facing a DWI charge in Houston, you undoubtedly have questions about the process. Typically, the police pull you over after observing a traffic violation. But what if the police tell you they got a call about a car matching yours and driving erratically? Can the police stop you and arrest you after an anonymous tip or a call to 911?
Reasonable Suspicion for a Traffic Stop
In a typical DWI case, the police will pull you over if they have “reasonable suspicion” that you committed a crime. “Reasonable suspicion” happens when an objective person believes that a crime occurred, given the facts and circumstances of the situation. Traffic offenses like speeding, weaving between lanes, or running a stop sign can give the police reasonable suspicion to pull you over. But what if someone calls 911 and the police pull you over simply because your car matches a description from an anonymous caller? Can the police do that?
Thanks to a U.S. Supreme Court case in 2014, an anonymous tip can be reasonable suspicion for the police to stop you for suspected DWI. See Navarette v. California, 134 S. Ct. 1683 (2014). In the Navarette case, a woman called 911 and reported that someone had run her off the road, describing the car. Police spotted a truck matching the description and pulled it over. As they approached the car, police smelled marijuana. After searching the truck bed, they found 30 pounds of marijuana and arrested the car's occupants.
The defendants moved to suppress the evidence, arguing that the traffic stop violated the Fourth Amendment's protections against unreasonable search and seizure. The Supreme Court disagreed, holding that the police had reasonable suspicion to stop the truck because, “under the totality of the circumstances, the officer had reasonable suspicion that the truck's driver was intoxicated.”
However, even if the police may have reasonable suspicion to pull you over based on an anonymous call, the police still need probable cause to search you, perform a BAC test, or arrest you for DWI. The anonymous tip is not enough alone for police to arrest you for DWI.
Engaging with the Police Officer
Under Texas law, someone is “intoxicated” if they:
- Have a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .08% or higher, or
- No longer has the normal use of their mental or physical faculties because of the use of alcohol, a dangerous drug, a controlled substance, or one or more of these combined.
When the police pull you over, they will watch for poor coordination, bloodshot eyes, visible drugs or alcohol in the car, and they'll listen for slurred speech to see if you may be intoxicated. If the police smell alcohol or drugs in your car during the stop, the police will take note. When taking all of their observations into consideration, if the police officer believes you may be intoxicated, they may ask you to complete some field sobriety tests.
Field Sobriety Tests
The police officer may conduct some field sobriety tests and observe your performance to determine if you're intoxicated. If you admit that you were drinking, smell like alcohol, have bloodshot eyes, slur your words, or are belligerent in demeanor, the police may also ask you to complete a field sobriety test. These tests often include the:
- Walk and Turn Test,
- One Leg Stand, and
- Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus Test.
The results of a field sobriety test are highly subjective. But if the police believe that you “failed” a test, they may ask you to submit to a breath or blood BAC test. Please keep in mind that completely sober people fail field sobriety tests all the time. You could be wearing the wrong shoes, have a medical condition, or simply have balance issues. The police do not know your medical history.
Blood Alcohol Concentration Testing
If the police ask you to take a BAC test, you can refuse. However, if you do, they will likely obtain a warrant for a blood test, and you will have to take one anyway. Typically, it is easier for your attorney to contest the results of a breath test in court, although even blood BAC tests aren't completely reliable. However, if you have the option between a blood and breath BAC test, you may want to choose the breath test.
The DWI Arrest and Probable Cause
After your field sobriety test, or after a BAC test, if the police think they have probable cause to believe you are intoxicated, they'll likely arrest you on suspicion of driving while intoxicated. They need probable cause to administer a BAC test, obtain a warrant for a blood test, search you or your car, or arrest you for DWI.
The police can't base “probable cause” on a gut feeling. Rather, officers must reasonably believe you're intoxicated based on the “facts and circumstances” of the stop, testing, and the entire situation. Probable cause is a higher standard than the “reasonable suspicion” police use for a traffic stop. However, if your BAC test is .08% or higher, the police will likely have probable cause to arrest you on suspicion of DWI.
Hire an Expert in Texas DWI Defense
If you're facing a DWI after an anonymous tip to the police, you need the guidance of an expert in DWI defense and criminal law. It's important to remember that you are innocent until proven guilty, but you need an experienced lawyer to review your case. Attorney Doug Murphy is an expert in DWI defense and has been protecting the rights of Houstonians charged with DWI for decades. He is one of only two attorneys in Texas Board Certified in both Criminal Defense Law and DWI Defense. U.S. News and World Report also named Doug a 2021 Houston Lawyer of the Year for DWI defense.
The seasoned DWI defense attorneys at the Doug Murphy Law Firm also have significant prosecutorial experience, giving them an edge in negotiating with Houston prosecutors. Find out why the Houston media calls Doug the “Drinking Driver's Best Friend.” Contact Doug Murphy Law Firm online or at (713) 229-8333 today to set up your consultation.