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Navarette v. California: Supreme Court Okays Anonymous Tip for Traffic Stop — We’ve All Lost Something Today

Back in January, we warned about what happened today: the United States Supreme Court has okayed police pulling people over to search their vehicles based upon an anonymous tip in the case of Navarette v. California.

In February, we were still reeling from the SCOTUS decision in Fernandez, where they found it legally permissible and constitutionally okay for police to search your home without a search warrant if one of the occupants agrees to allow the police to enter even if the other occupant does not – and, little surprise, it’s this refusing occupant who ends up arrested. Now, things are even more shocking for us all.

This case, Navarette, is a big deal for everybody.



What happened? The Case of Navarette v. California

Back in August 2008, a California 911 operator got a call from someone who didn’t want to give their name, but wanted to report someone driving recklessly, who had run her car off the road. Conveniently, the anonymous tipster could provide the license plate of this renegade vehicle, even though it was too much to ask that she also leave her name.

The 911 call was forwarded to the California Highway Patrol, and CHP troopers drove off and soon thereafter, pulled over on a traffic stop a silver Ford F-150 pickup that matched the description given by the anonymous caller. The officers admitted that they didn’t see anything wrong with how the truck was being driven, and they followed the truck for awhile.

They pulled the truck over without any personal confirmation that the driver was doing anything wrong whatsoever. They saw nothing, but they went ahead with the traffic stop anyway.

The troopers testified that they smelled marijuana as they approached the truck.

So they now had a legal basis to search the truck.

Those troopers found two people in the pickup truck with 30 pounds of marijuana. Arrests followed. The criminal defense lawyers argued – yes, all the way to the United States Supreme Court – that this traffic stop was an illegal search and seizure in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Accordingly, the marijuana that was found could not be used as evidence in the prosecution of the two defendants.

In lawyer-speak, the Navarette brothers argued that the anonymous tip was too vague to support the traffic stop constitutionally, and that the police officers had no basis to do a traffic stop because they failed to observe any action on the part of the driven truck that would provide the cops with a reasonable suspicion of unlawful activity.

The prosecution maintained that the anonymous tip was an acceptable basis for stopping and searching the truck. Didn’t matter that the cops didn’t see anything wrong. Anonymous tip without any confirmation by law enforcement was just fine with them.

What the Supreme Court Has Okayed

In an opinion released today, the Justices of the United States Supreme Court, in a 5 to 4 decision, held that it is acceptable and legal in this country, and not against the United States Constitution’s protections against unreasonable search and seizure, for a police officer to pull over a vehicle driving along an American roadway based upon an anonymous tip that the driver is under the influence or that the driver is otherwise driving recklessly.

(Read what came down today here, I have placed it into my Digital Library.)

It was a close decision, granted, and one that Justice Antonin Scalia described as a “freedom-destroying cocktail.

Scalia warns:

The Court’s opinion serves up a freedom-destroying cocktail consisting of two parts patent falsity: (1) that anonymous 911 reports of traffic violations are reliable so long as they correctly identify a car and its location, and

(2) that a single instance of careless or reckless driving necessarily supports a reasonable suspicion of drunkenness. All the malevolent 911 caller need do is assert a traffic violation, and the targeted car will be stopped, forcibly if necessary, by the police. If the driver turns out not to be drunk (which will almost always be the case), the caller need fear no consequences, even if 911 knows his identity. After all, he never alleged drunkenness, but merely called in a traffic violation—and on that point his word is as good as his victim’s.

Drunken driving is a serious matter, but so is the loss of our freedom to come and go as we please without police interference. To prevent and detect murder we do not allow searches without probable cause or targeted Terry stops without reasonable suspicion. We should not do so for drunken driving either. After today’s opinion all of us on the road, and not just drug dealers, are at risk of having our freedom of movement curtailed on suspicion of drunkenness, based upon a phone tip, true or false, of a single instance of careless driving.

What This Means for the Future (From an Experienced Criminal Defense Perspective)

In today’s majority (controlling) opinion, the High Court finds that the anonymous tip phoned into the California 911 was “sufficiently reliable” to let the police go zipping down the road and do a traffic stop on the driver without messing with his constitutional rights to not be pulled over unless the police officer has a reasonable suspicion of the law being violated in some way by the driver.

Remember, this was an ANONYMOUS TIP.

In the past, it was the understood law of the land that the police must have some kind of corroboration before they trust anonymous tips. Makes sense, right?

So here, in this case, the CHP Troopers admitted the truck wasn’t driving improperly from their personal observation, and yet they went ahead and stopped that truck based upon a tip

  • from a woman whose name they didn’t know,
  • whose relationship with the people in the truck they didn’t know,
  • without any information about where the woman lived,
  • where she was calling from,
  • where she herself was under the influence at the time, or
  • anything else about her.

Consider what this will mean to people in the future, two hypotheticals:

  • In a bitter divorce proceeding, the wife can call the police without identifying herself and tell them that her husband is driving drunk. She’s tossed some empties into his car, he’s not aware or not too concerned about it. Now, he’s facing a big problem after being pulled over by police who are not aware (because anonymous is okay) that the soon-to-be ex-wife is manipulating this thing.
  • In a small town somewhere, a police officer sees a car drive along the highway and the officer doesn’t like the driver, or the car’s bumper sticker, or the sister of the driver, or the color of the driver’s skin, or the race of the driver, … well, you get the idea. Now, the officer turns on his flashers, pulls over the car, and busts the driver for driving recklessly, or for having drugs in the car, or any of a number of violations. Asked later, his buddy will back up that there was an “anonymous tip” that came in about this car ….

And if you don’t think that unethical and immoral police officers aren’t going to use the ‘anonymous tip’ in this way, then maybe you need to read this blog a bit more often. We’ve got lots of examples of law enforcement (and prosecutorial) misconduct.

The Bottom Line Here

It’s not an exaggeration to say we aren’t living under the bill of rights any longer. In our modern society, cars and homes are almost equivalent. My car is my second home.

Some days, I spend more time in my car than my house. How about you?

It’s impossible to be governed by a government that will be totally unrestricted with any rules to guarantee citizens’ privacy in their second home.

This is a bad decision from the United States Supreme Court today and people will suffer because of it.

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