Wednesday, April 23, 2014

SCOTUS: Anonymous Tip Can Justify Stop

In a startling ruling this week, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, held that an anonymous tip, under certain circumstances, can justify a motor vehicle stop without corroboration of the conduct described in the tip.

In Navarette v. CA, police received an anonymous tip via 911 regarding a suspected reckless/drunken driver.  Police located a vehicle matching the description of the reported car and followed it, but were unable to observe any suspicious behavior or violations.  The police nonetheless stopped the car and, upon contacting the driver, noticed an odor of marijuana.  The driver consented to a search and a large amount of marijuana was discovered.

In upholding the stop of the car, Justice Thomas ruled that the tip had "sufficient indicia of reliability" since it described a particular car and type of driving. The Court essentially ruled that an officer doesn't have to wait for a potentially-dangerous driver to actually injure someone in order to investigate and/or prevent a public danger; that reckless/drunken driving was more serious than a mere traffic infraction.  The Court noted that this particular ruling did not necessarily vacate or reverse previous rulings that disapproved reliance on an anonymous tip as a basis for stopping or seizing a person, but that the circumstances articulated by the officer, combined with the nature of the report, were of sufficient concern to merit investigation which could only be effected by stopping the vehicle.

Justice Scalia, in a pointed dissent, said "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." 

An important point to note here is that, regardless of the basis for a stop, a driver should never consent to a search of his vehicle or person.  Though not specifically noted, it cannot be overlooked that the Court's concern for the claims of the appellant here were possibly clouded by the fact that he consented to the search that discovered the contraband at issue.