The US Supreme Court recently released their opinion in Navarette v. California, 572 U.S._____ (2014). It seems that the interest of public safety triumphs over individual freedoms again.
Around 4 in the afternoon, a driver on Highway 1 in California called 911 to report that a silver Ford F-150 with license plate 8D94925 ran her off the road near mile marker 88. The whereabouts of the suspect vehicle were unknown, however, California Highway Patrol was notified. Officers spotted the vehicle on the highway near mile marker 69. Officers followed the vehicle for about 5 minutes before executing a traffic stop. Officers discovered bales of marijuana in the bed of the truck. The driver, Navarette, and his passenger were arrested and charged with transporting marijuana.
Navarette challenged the stop as a violation of the Fourth Amendment. The Court ruled, 5-4, that the traffic stop based on an anonymous tip did not violate the Fourth Amendment based on the totality of the circumstances because the officer had reasonable suspicion that the driver was intoxicated.
The dissent in this case is fascinating because it points out the problems of anonymous tips, specifically 911 calls, that have previously sunk prior cases. It also points out that the police took a report of irregular or hazardous driving and turned it into reasonable suspicion of DUI requiring a traffic stop. The practical application of this is that anyone can call and report an actual or fabricated careless or momentarily reckless driver and that will be interpreted as a drunk driver requiring the police to stop, detain, and investigate the driver without any verification of the anonymous caller’s story.
The police had an opportunity to verify the caller’s account, but their observations did not reveal any legal reason to conduct a traffic stop. Their reasoning came solely from the 911 caller. The court has potentially given the police a way to conduct a traffic stop despite any evidence to support a traffic violation as long as they are relying on information from an anonymous caller who says the “right” things.
Anonymous tips have always been treated with caution by law enforcement and the courts because of the inherent unreliability of the tips. Anonymous tips are measured by the courts by their inherent reliability only after the fact. This case reinforces the notion that the totality of the circumstances prevails, and gives the benefit of the doubt to the police instead of the people.
The police should be given the benefit of the doubt when it is warranted. They have to act in high stress situations and lawyers and judges should not always second guess those decisions. But this situation was factually different than those scenarios when the police must make a decision. The police were able to observe the truck on the highway for 5 minutes with no indication of intoxication or traffic law violation. Yet, the police were allowed to stop, detain, and search the vehicle.
The Court identified the totality of the circumstances as the basis for the reasonableness of the stop based on the anonymous tip so it is reasonable to think that this decision may be limited only to these specific facts. Sadly, that is not likely. Law enforcement is more aggressive and proactive than ever in seeking out criminal activity and they continue to seek ways to do so. This case aids them and allows them to detain citizens despite any evidence of wrongdoing