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Published: Thursday, 10/29/2009

'One free swerve'

SOME U.S. Supreme Court decisions defy explanation and a recent one involving a case from Virginia is a prime example. In a 7-2 vote, the justices upheld a ruling by the Virginia Supreme Court in favor of a drunken driver stopped by police on a caller's tip.

The state court said it was an "unreasonable search" to stop and question a motorist based entirely on a call from a concerned member of the public. But the high court ruled that a police officer can follow - but cannot stop - a suspected drunken driver's car until the officer sees something suspicious, like the vehicle swerving.

When he was stopped by police on a tip, Joseph Harris of Richmond stumbled out of his car and appeared obviously intoxicated when questioned by officers. Fortunately, they got him off the road before he could do harm to himself or others.

Most state courts have upheld police stops based on tips from callers so long as the vehicle matches the description given. But the Virginia judges cited a Miami case as precedent for their ruling in which the Supreme Court said police could not frisk a pedestrian based solely on an anonymous call.

The difference with suspected drunken drivers, of course, is a couple tons of steel threatening imminent injury or death. As dissenting Chief Justice John Roberts rightly observed, "The effect of [this] rule will be to grant drunk drivers 'one free swerve' before they can be pulled over by the police."

To the family of a motorist killed by that swerve while police watched, powerless to intervene, the majority reasoning defies explanation.

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