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Supreme Court allows police to use anonymous tips to make traffic stops

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On April 22, the Supreme Court announced its decision in the case of Navarette v. California, which challenged the constitutionality of allowing police officers to pull over drivers based only on the information gleaned in an anonymous tip phoned in by a caller who dialed 911. The justices decided by a 5-4 vote that “The traffic stop complied with the Fourth Amendment because, under the totality of the circumstances, the officer had reasonable suspicion that the truck’s driver was intoxicated.”

The majority opinion was delivered by Justice Clarence Thomas and was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Stephen Breyer, and Anthony Kennedy. A dissenting opinion was filed by Justice Antonin Scalia and was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor.

The case began in 2008, when Lorenzo Prado Navarette was driving with 30 pounds of marijuana in his vehicle. Another driver called 911 to report that Navarette had ran her off the road. Police came up behind Navarette's vehicle and followed it for five minutes, during which time Navarette's driving gave no indication of impairment. Police then pulled over Navarette, smelled marijuana, found it, and arrested Navarette and his passenger, Jose Prado Navarette. The arrestees moved to suppress the evidence of drug possession on Fourth Amendment grounds, saying the officers lacked reasonable suspicion when they pulled over Navarette. The magistrate rejected the motion, and this decision was upheld by the Court of Appeal of the State of California.

In its decision, the Supreme Court cited United States v. Cortez (1981), Alabama v. White (1990), and United States v. Arvizu (2001) to say that the Fourth Amendment “permits brief investigative stops when an officer has a particularized and objective basis for suspecting the particular person stopped of criminal activity,” that “reasonable suspicion takes into account the totality of the circumstances and depends upon both the content of information possessed by police and its degree of reliability,” and that “reasonable suspicion need not rule out the possibility of innocent conduct.”

Pointing out the possible problems with this decision in his dissent, Scalia wrote, “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.”

Scalia also wrote, “Law enforcement agencies follow closely our judgments on matters such as this, and they will identify at once our new rule: So long as the caller identifies where the car is, anonymous claims of a single instance of possibly careless or reckless driving, called in to 911, will support a traffic stop. This is not my concept, and I am sure would not be the Framers’, of a people secure from unreasonable searches and seizures. ...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.”

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