The U.S. Supreme Court decided to hear a criminal case out of California so it can decide whether police are allowed to stop cars based solely on an anonymous tip. The Supreme Court agreed to hear oral arguments in the case and will issue its opinion before the end of the current term next June.
Current constitutional law concerning searches and seizures is clear that before a police officer can apprehend a driver they must first have reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing. To establish this reasonable suspicion, officers are allowed to rely on an identified witness’ description of illegal activity. The issue is that courts across the country are split on whether this permits officers to pull over a driver simply because an anonymous source reported that the person was driving recklessly.
The case at issue, Navarette v. California, dates back to August 2008 when a California Highway Patrol dispatcher received a call from a driver who reported being run off the road by a pickup truck traveling north along Highway 1. The caller was able to provide the license plate number of the truck and it was spotted a short time later by two police officers.
The officers who pulled over the driver claim that they smelled marijuana when they approach the truck and ultimately discovered four bags of pot in the truck bed. The driver, Lorenzo Navarette, tried to challenge the search of the car but ended up pleading guilty to transporting marijuana and was sentenced to 90 days behind bars.
The case was appealed to a federal district court, which eventually upheld Navarette’s conviction. The Court relied on a California Supreme Court case that said police are allowed to rely on anonymous tips without having to actually see the reckless driving themselves. The Court found that the tip from the other driver was sufficient evidence to justify the stop of Navarette’s vehicle without any direct corroboration on the part of the arresting officers.
The Supreme Court will now decide whether this court was correct in upholding the conviction. The last time the Supreme Court addressed the subject was in 2000 when it ruled unanimously that an anonymous tip that reported a man at a bus stop holding a gun did not permit officer to search someone who simply matched the man’s description. The Court held that anonymous reports can be unreliable or even malicious and thus cannot be used as the basis for probable cause. However, the opinion noted that the case might be different if the tip had involved a bomb or something else that was especially time sensitive. Whether the Court will decide that drunk drivers are similar to bombs remains to be seen.
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