The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today upheld a terrible decision delivered by the Massachusetts Appeals Court last year regarding the propriety of a drunk driving stop in Belmont. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Depiero.
In August of 2011, a state trooper received a dispatch that the operator of a black Mercedes Benz was driving erratically and weaving through the lanes of traffic on Memorial Drive in Cambridge. The dispatcher relied on information provided by an anonymous 911 caller who said there was a “drunk driver on Memorial Drive near Harvard Square… swerving all over the road.” The anonymous caller provided the make, color, and license plate number of the car. The dispatcher told the trooper the Belmont address to which the car was registered and also said the registered owner was on probation for drunk driving. The trooper drove straight to the Belmont address and waited for the defendant, who arrived a few minutes later. The trooper watched the defendant drive the car into his driveway and did not see any erratic operation. The trooper followed the defendant into his driveway and activated his emergency lights. The defendant almost fell down when he got out of the car and his hair was unkempt. He also smelled like an alcoholic beverage. The trooper administered a series of field sobriety tests which the defendant failed. The trooper arrested the defendant who subsequently blew a 0.18 on the Breathalyzer.
The defendant filed a motion to suppress his stop. He argued that a single anonymous tip did not justify the trooper’s conduct in stopping him (there is no dispute that the trooper “stopped” the defendant in the constitutional sense when he turned on his emergency lights in the defendant’s driveway). A district court judge denied the defendant’s motion and he was convicted of operating under the influence of alcohol (second offense). The Appeals Court affirmed his conviction and the Supreme Judicial Court agreed to consider the case.
The Court applied the familiar Aguilar-Spinelli test to determine whether the anonymous tip should have been credited. Under Aguilar-Spinelli, the Commonwealth must establish that the tipster: (1) had a basis of knowledge of the source of the information; and (2) was a credible source (the veracity prong). In this case, the Commonwealth clearly satisfied the basis of knowledge prong where the tipster was driving near the defendant and provided very specific information to allow a police officer to identify the defendant’s car. However, as the Court acknowledged, because the caller was anonymous, there could be no evidence regarding his past reliability for providing information. So how was the veracity prong satisfied here? The Court reasoned that the tipster’s information was independently corroborated by the trooper’s observations. Based on the time it took the trooper to meet the defendant at his home, he was able to corroborate the tipster’s report of the defendant’s location on Memorial Drive. The Court also claimed the caller’s tip was somehow corroborated by the fact that the defendant was on probation for drunk driving. Based on these incredibly flimsy examples of “corroboration,” the SJC ruled that the Aguilar-Spinelli test had been satisfied and the trooper had the right to stop the defendant based on the single anonymous tip.
Unfortunately, this defendant was the victim of horrible legal opinions at every stage of his case, starting in the district court, continuing to the Appeals Court, and ending at the Supreme Judicial Court.