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In Utah, an informant can provide the information that the peace officer relies on to establish the necessary reasonable suspicion to justify a stop of a vehicle.

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects citizens from unlawful investigatory stops of their vehicles by peace officers.[1] Investigatory stops of vehicles are only permissible if the peace officer has a reasonable suspicion that the driver has been, is, or is about to be engaged in criminal activity. Reasonable suspicion is dependent upon both the content of information possessed by the peace officer and its degree of reliability. Both of these factors are taken into account by Utah Courts when evaluating whether the peace officer had reasonable suspicion to stop a vehicle.

In Utah the facts relied on by a peace officer to support reasonable suspicion to stop a vehicle may come from an informant.[2] The Utah Court of Appeals articulated a three-factor framework for analyzing whether an informant’s tip provides the necessary reasonable suspicion to support a peace officer’s stop of a vehicle. They are: (1) The reliability of the informant; (2) The detail of the information provided by the informant; and (3) The corroboration of the informant’s tip by the peace officer’s own observations.   Utah Courts evaluate these factors under the “totality of the circumstances” in determining whether the peace officer was justified in relying on the informant’s tip to establish the required reasonable suspicion to stop a vehicle.

Whether an informant’s tip was sufficient to support a peace officer’s determination that he had reasonable suspicion to stop a vehicle was addressed in State of Utah v. Roybal, (2010 UT 34) and Salt Lake City v. Street, (2011 UT App 111).

In Roybal, the Utah Supreme Court held that the peace officer was justified in stopping defendant’s vehicle based on the informant’s tip. Wherefore, the Utah Supreme Court reversed the Utah Court of Appeals and affirmed defendant’s conviction for driving under the influence.

The relevant facts in Roybal were as follows: Based on a 911 call, the dispatcher sent out a bulletin requesting peace officer assistance; The dispatcher gave a description of the vehicle and a partial plate number and informed the peace officer that informant and defendant had been verbally fighting and both informant and defendant were intoxicated; The peace officer found and followed defendant’s vehicle; The peace officer testified that defendant drove “really, really slow” and it appeared, to the peace officer, that “defendant was trying to avoid him”.  Based on these observations, the peace officer suspected that defendant was drunk.

The Utah Supreme Court looked at the totality of the circumstances and determined that the 911 call was sufficient to provide the dispatcher with reasonable suspicion that defendant was driving under the influence. The informant was an identified citizen-informant who is presumptively reliable. The informant gave her full name and address, thereby fully exposing herself to liability for fraudulent allegations.  Further, the informant did not call with the intention of reporting defendant’s drunk driving but to request help removing him from her home.  Informant’s statement that defendant had been drinking was made off-handedly and with the acknowledgment that she, too, had been drinking, which indicates that her remark was simply a statement of fact and lacked an ulterior motive.  In addition, the informant provided specific details of her first-hand observations.  Informant reported to the dispatcher that she had been with defendant, that they had been drinking together, and that he had just left.  The informant also described defendant’s vehicle with a partial license plate number, the area he was in, and the direction defendant was heading.  Coupled with the fact that informant was noticeably intoxicated on the phone, the dispatcher could make a reasonable inference that defendant was similarly intoxicated, and was driving.  Unlike the Utah Court of Appeals, the Utah Supreme Court did not believe that it was necessary for the informant to report how much or how long defendant had been drinking, the type of drink consumed, or defendant’s weight.  Undoubtedly these details would have strengthened the report. However, because the informant said defendant had been drinking with her, and she was clearly intoxicated, it was reasonable for the dispatcher to infer that defendant was likewise intoxicated. Thus, the details provided in the call, together with their reasonable inferences, given from a reliable, identified citizen-informant, were sufficient for the dispatcher to form a reasonable suspicion that defendant was driving while intoxicated.

Once a reasonable suspicion is reached by the originator of the information – in this case, the dispatcher – the responding peace officer is entitled to rely on the information unless the peace officer’s personal observations or interaction with the suspect present indications to the contrary.  That is to say, if the suspect’s actions are not inconsistent with the reasonable suspicion, the peace officer may pursue the suspect and stop them immediately.

Applying this standard to this case, we must determine whether defendant’s actions presented the peace officer with evidence contradicting the dispatcher’s reasonable suspicion.  The peace officer observed defendant driving slowly and carefully and in a manner that appeared as though he were trying to avoid the police car.  Although this behavior in and of itself is not conclusive, it does not disprove or contradict the reasonable suspicion that defendant was driving under the influence, and therefore did not diminish the peace officer’s ability to rely on the dispatcher’s report and to pursue and detain defendant.

In Street, the Utah Court of Appeals held that the peace officer was justified in stopping defendant based on an informant’s tip. Wherefore, the Utah Court of Appeals affirmed the Utah District Court’s ruling that the totality of the circumstances supported the existence of reasonable suspicion to stop defendant’s vehicle.

The relevant facts in Street where as follows:  The peace officer was working on foot patrol in Liberty Park; While the peace officer was on patrol, an informant with children approached him; The informant told the peace officer that the defendant was “passed out” in his vehicle in the park and she believed the defendant was intoxicated; The informant told the peace officer that she was concerned because there was a child in the vehicle and she did not want defendant, who she believed was intoxicated, to drive with the child in the vehicle; The informant gave a description of defendant’s vehicle and its location in the park; The peace officer approached the vehicle and confirmed that both the vehicle and its occupants matched the descriptions given by the informant; and, As the peace officer approached, the vehicle pulled out and passed him, and he flagged it down.

The Utah Court of Appeals reasoned that although the informant was not identified, she was not truly anonymous because the circumstances indicated that she was a reliable citizen-informant.  She approached the peace officer in a public park with her children.  She sought nothing in return for her information, and her stated concern was for the safety of the public and the child in defendant’s vehicle.  The informant made no suggestion that she had obtained the information from a third party or that she had not personally observed defendant.  Furthermore, even though the woman was not identified by name, she made no attempt to hide her identity, and her face-to-face encounter with the peace officer placed her anonymity at risk and exposed her to the possibility of future identification.  Thus, while not on the peak end of the reliability scale because she remained unidentified, although identifiable, the informant was still highly reliable.  Her status as a disinterested citizen-informant suggests trustworthiness, and the fact that she encountered the officer face-to-face undercuts any adverse implication that her lack of actual identification had on her reliability.

As to the second factor (The detail of the information provided by the informant), although the informant did not provide extensive detail regarding the suspected criminal activity, the detail she did provide was sufficient to support a reasonable suspicion.  In the context of reporting a drunk driver, detailed information is generally not required.  Members of the general public have a common knowledge about whether a person is under the influence of alcohol [3], so the informant did not need to specifically explain to the peace officer why she believed defendant was intoxicated.  While additional information would certainly have strengthened the informant’s report, a conclusory statement by a citizen-informant that a driver is intoxicated may be sufficient to support a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.  Therefore, although the detail provided by the informant was limited, it was sufficient to support a reasonable suspicion that defendant was intoxicated, particularly when considered in view of the fact that she was a reliable citizen-informant.

While the existence of third factor (The corroboration of the informant’s tip by the peace officer’s own observations), is not necessary to support a reasonable suspicion, it is relevant to the extent that it strengthens or weakens either the reliability of the informant or the content of the informant’s information.  Thus, this factor should be analyzed in concert with the other two factors to complete the totality of the circumstances assessment.

Although the peace officer did not personally witness any actions by defendant, such as erratic driving, that would suggest criminal activity, his observations were not inconsistent with the informant’s report, which was sufficiently detailed and reliable to support a reasonable suspicion on its own.  Furthermore, the fact that the peace officer discovered the vehicle in the location pointed out by the woman and observed that the vehicle’s occupants matched the informant’s description enhanced the reliability of her account.  Thus under the totality of the circumstances, the informant’s report gave the officer a reasonable suspicion to stop defendant’s vehicle and investigate him for a DUI.

[1] State v. Roybal, 232 P.3d 1016 (2010)
[2] State v. Kohl, 999 P.2d 7 (2000)
[3] State v. Bybee, 884 P.2d 906 (Or. Ct. App. 1994)