The U.S. Supreme Court recently decided a DUI case that could have broad-reaching implications in Ohio.  In a 5-4 decision, the Court held that an anonymous tip of reckless driving is enough for the police to pull a car over — even if the police themselves do not observe any traffic violation.  The case was Navarette v. California (2014)

The biting dissent by Justice Scalia in this case explains the serious consequences of this holding.  Any malevolent 911 caller can report a tip on someone they don’t like and get them pulled over.  Other than very basic details (e.g. the car’s location), the police don’t have to verify that the 911 caller is telling the truth.

Facts of the Case

A 911 caller reported an intoxicated driver of a truck ran him off of the road.  Once the truck was located, two officers pulled him over. As the officers approached the truck, they smelled marijuana and searched the car.  They found 30 pounds of marijuana.

The Fourth Amendment: A Reliable Anonymous Tip of Reckless Driving is Enough to Justify a DUI Stop

The Fourth Amendment allows brief investigative stops when the officer has “a particularized and objective basis for suspecting the particular person stopped of criminal activity.”

The Court found an officer’s suspicion can arise based on an anonymous tip – if it includes specific and reliable information.  The officer doesn’t have to personally observe the car going off the road – they can rely on the observations of someone else.  Examples of other cases involving anonymous tipsters include:

  • An anonymous tipster told the police that a woman would be driving from a one apartment building to a particular motel in a brown Plymouth station wagon with a broken right tail light.  The tipster said the woman would be transporting cocaine.
    The officers stopped the station wagon as it neared the motel and found cocaine in the vehicle.   The Court found that because the officer corroborated certain details (i.e. the make/model, where she was driving to / from), the tip was sufficiently reliable to create reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.  Although there was no indication the tipster had seen the cocaine, the predictions of future movement were enough to make the tipster’s predictions reliable. Alabama v. White, 496 U. S. 325 (1990).
  • An anonymous tipster told police that a young black male in a plaid shirt standing at a bus stop was carrying a gun. The tipster did not explain how he knew about the gun, or anything else.  The Court found that this was not enough to stop or frisk anyone.  There was no indication that the tipster had actually seen the gun or had any firsthand knowledge of it.  Florida v. J. L., 529 U. S. 266 (2000).

In this case, the anonymous tipster was very specific.  She identified the truck as a silver Ford F-150 pickup, license plate 8D94925—a very specific description.  Also, that the tipster said that she herself was run off the road was other evidence of reliable firsthand knowledge.  Further, the tipsters account was accurate with regard to mile markers and the reported location of the dangerous driving.  The timeline suggests that the caller reported the incident soon after she was run off the road.

The use of the 911 system also indicated reliability.  911 calls can be recorded and the tipster’s voice can potentially be identified.  Making a false report on the 911 system can be prosecuted as a crime.

Because a reasonable officer could conclude that the reckless driving observed by the tipster was the result of drunk driving, the Supreme Court found the stop was proper.  Courts have found the following driving behaviors as “sound indicia” of drunk driving:

Of course, not all traffic infractions imply intoxication.  Driving without a seatbelt or speeding, for example, “are so tenuously connected to drunk driving that a stop on those grounds alone would be constitutionally suspect.”

Further, there are many explanations for running off of the road that don’t involve drinking.  For example, trying to calm a child in the backseat, a cell phone distraction, swerving to avoid a deer or pothole, or other distraction could cause a driver to weave.  Nonetheless, the Court found that weaving and driving off of the road are enough to justify a DUI stop.

The Dissent

This was a very close (5-4) decision.  In fact, four justices dissented in a dissenting opinion authored by Justice Scalia.

Justice Scalia points out that under this new decision “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.”

The dissent describes all of the potential unknowns with this tipster.  The police didn’t know her name, her address, or any information about her.  An unnamed tipster “can lie with impunity” and should be suspect.  And just because the tipster knew near which mile marker the Ford truck was traveling doesn’t mean anything.  Anyone driving down the road would have that information.  Further, when the officer started following the truck, the driver did not break a single traffic law.

The dissent concluded that 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. After all, he never alleged drunkenness, but merely called in a traffic violation—and on that point his word is as good as his victim’s.”

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