Recent Supreme Court Decision Gives Power to Anonymous Tipsters

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June 27, 2014 — 1,788 views  

Recent Supreme Court Decision Gives Power to Anonymous Tipsters

On April 22, 2014, the United States Supreme Court ruled that it’s permissible for the police to make a traffic stop based solely on an anonymous tip from a 911 caller. The 5-4 decision, which is likely to incite the interest of criminal defense lawyers and the law enforcement community, seems to expand police powers and the parameters of what constitutes a legal search under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Navarette v. California

Previous Supreme Court decisions authorized the police to make traffic stops based on anonymous tips, but the information had to demonstrate a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. The decision by the Roberts court to amend this legal standard was prompted by a 2008 traffic stop in California. The incident occurred near McKerricher State Park in Mendocino County.

After being notified by Humboldt County officials of an anonymous 911 tip that a silver F150 pickup truck had run an unidentified vehicle off the road, the Mendocino dispatch center broadcast the vehicle description and license number to police officers. Once the vehicle in question was located, police officers followed the vehicle for approximately five minutes before making a traffic stop to speak with the driver.

The traffic stop took on new meaning when one of the police officers noticed the smell of marijuana. The occupants of the vehicle, Lorenzo Prado Navarette and Jose Prado Navarette, were arrested after officers discovered four large bags of marijuana in the bed of the pickup. The defendants were subsequently charged with possessing marijuana as well as transporting marijuana for sale.

Legal Arguments

During the trial that followed, the defense maintained that the evidence was inadmissible because the police did not have probable cause to stop and search the defendant’s vehicle. The prosecution argued that reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing was justified since police observations corresponded with the details provided in the anonymous 911 tip. The magistrate in the case denied the defense motion to suppress the evidence and the defendants were convicted. Two petitions to have the guilty verdict overturned , including an appeal to the California Supreme Court, were subsequently denied.

U.S. Supreme Court Conclusions

Writing for the majority, Justice Clarence Thomas ruled that the available evidence was sufficient to believe that the driver of the Ford pickup was intoxicated. The 5-4 majority determined that the Fourth Amendment was not violated since it is permissible for a police officer to depend on anonymous tips and other reliable evidence that cannot be directly observed.

Although it is conceivable that an anonymous tip could be concocted to implicate an innocent party, the evidence in the Navarette v. California case seemed to indicate that the anonymous tip was provided to authorities immediately after the alleged reckless driving incident.

In a strong dissenting opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote that the evidence was not trustworthy enough to justify a traffic stop by the police. Scalia cited the fact that the police followed the Ford truck for some distance without any indication that the driver was impaired by drugs or alcohol. Anyone that wanted the police to pull over the truck could have called the 911 dispatch center with a concocted story.


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