Supreme Court upholds traffic stop based on 911 tip, erodes the rights of drivers on the road

Posted On: May 20th, 2014

On April 22, 2014 the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in Navarette v. California that a traffic stop based on an anonymous 911 tip was permissible because it provided the police with reasonable suspicion that the driver of the vehicle was intoxicated.  The decision stems from an incident in California where a motorist allegedly ran a woman’s vehicle off the road with his truck. The woman then called 911 – anonymously – explaining what happened and describing the truck.  The police quickly responded, and pulled over the truck described by the anonymous tip.  When the police approached the car, they smelled marijuana, and eventually arrested the driver of the truck on drug charges. The defense claimed that the stop and search violated the driver’s constitutional rights because the police officers did not have a reasonable suspicion to pull him over in the first place.  The Supreme Court disagreed, holding that “under the totality of the circumstances, the officer had reasonable suspicion that the truck’s driver was intoxicated.”  This suspicion was derived solely and exclusively from the anonymous tip, and not from any observations made by the police officers.

Prior to the traffic stop, the California Highway Patrol knew nothing about the 911 caller.  They did not know her name, her phone number or her address; they did not even know what county she called from.  The fact that she chose to remain anonymous also raises serious questions about the caller’s reliability.

For an officer to pull a car over, the officer must have a reasonable suspicion to believe a traffic violation has been committed.  Ordinarily, this reasonable suspicion is supported by the officer witnessing a vehicle and traffic law violation.   But in Navarette v. California, the officer did not witness the events that ultimately resulted in a 911 call.  In fact the California Highway Patrol did not witness anything to support the stop of the vehicle.  There were no indications that the driver they pulled over was intoxicated at all.  He did not violate any rules of the road, had no outstanding warrants, and was by all outward appearances driving completely normal.   This did not appear to matter to the court, as it determined that the information supplied by the tip, and the short period of time alleged between the incident and the tip, suggested the 911 caller was a reliable eye witness, and that the information she gave was credible enough to support pulling over a driver otherwise obeying the rules of the road.

It is still far too early to know how this decision will impact drivers around the country.  New York is a State known for affording more protections to its citizens than the Supreme Court of the United States, but at least in the short term this decision will undoubtedly lead to more and more traffic stops based on less and less reliable evidence such as an anonymous 911 call.

At Dreyer Boyajian LaMarche Safranko Law, we represent those individuals who are charged with criminal offenses and are committed to protecting the constitutional rights of our clients.

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Dreyer Boyajian LaMarche Safranko Law

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