- Does the Fourth Amendment require that an officer who receives an anonymous tip about a drunken or reckless driver corroborate dangerous driving before stopping the vehicle?
- Does an anonymous, uncorroborated tip that a vehicle ran someone off the road create reasonable suspicion to stop the vehicle?
In August 2008, a Mendocino County 911 dispatcher received a call from another county dispatcher reporting that a silver Ford truck had run another car off the road. The car occupants had anonymously reported that the truck ran them off the road. A police officer saw the truck, pulled it over, searched it, and found four large bags of marijuana, and arrested Jose and Lorenzo Navarette for marijuana transportation, possession, and sale. The Navarettes filed a motion to suppress evidence of the marijuana, arguing that the anonymous tip was not sufficient to justify the stop because the officer did not independently corroborate the alleged illegal activity. The magistrate judge denied the motion to suppress, and on appeal, the California Court of Appeal held that the officer had reasonable suspicion to stop the vehicle. The Supreme Court granted certiorari to decide whether an anonymous tip must be corroborated in order to create a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. This case will impact the continuing development of Fourth Amendment law. The Navarettes argue that the Fourth Amendment requires independent corroboration of reckless driving in order for an anonymous tip to justify stopping a vehicle. California responds that because of the state’s interest in protecting the public, an anonymous tip can supply reasonable suspicion absent police corroboration.
Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties
- Does the Fourth Amendment require an officer who receives an anonymous tip regarding a drunken or reckless driver to corroborate dangerous driving before stopping the vehicle?
- Does an anonymous tip that a specific vehicle ran someone off the road provide reasonable suspicion to stop a vehicle, where the detaining officer was only advised to be on the lookout for a reckless driver, and the officer could not corroborate dangerous driving despite following the suspect vehicle for several miles?
On August 23, 2008, Mendocino County 911 dispatchers received a call from the Humboldt County dispatcher reporting that a silver Ford F150 pickup truck with an identified license-plate number had run another car off the road at mile marker 88 on southbound Highway 1. The occupants of the car had reported the incident anonymously. The Mendocino dispatchers broadcast the information to officers at 3:47 p.m. Two officers responded that they were en route to the area where the reckless driving was reported. At 4:00 p.m., Sergeant Francis reported that he spotted the vehicle at mile marker 69 and began to follow the truck. After following for about five minutes, Francis pulled the vehicle over and the other patrol car joined him. The officers approached the vehicle on the passenger side and asked both occupants—Lorenzo Navarette, the driver, and Jose Navarette, the passenger—for identification. Lorenzo produced only a photocopy of identification, and the officers moved to the driver’s side of the truck to request additional identification. Once on the driver’s side, the officers smelled marijuana. Upon searching the vehicle, the officers found four large bags of marijuana. Jose and Lorenzo Navarette were arrested for transportation of marijuana and possession of marijuana for sale.
Jose and Lorenzo Navarette moved to suppress evidence of the marijuana on the basis that its discovery resulted from an illegal search not based on reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. Specifically, they argued, the anonymous tip was inadequate to justify a stop because the officers had corroborated only innocent details. The magistrate judge denied the motion to suppress. The Navarettes then unsuccessfully moved to set aside the magistrate’s determination, which was denied along with their petition for pretrial review. The Navarettes pled guilty to the charge of transportation of marijuana, and the charge for possession for sale of marijuana was dismissed. On appeal, the California Court of Appeal held that the officers had reasonable suspicion to stop the vehicle. The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari to determine two similar but distinct questions. First, whether law enforcement officers who receive anonymous tips regarding drunken or reckless driving are required by the Fourth Amendment to corroborate dangerous driving before stopping the vehicle, and second whether an anonymous tip that a vehicle ran someone off the road provides reasonable suspicion to stop a vehicle where the officer has not corroborated dangerous driving even after following the vehicle for several miles.
Jose and Lorenzo Navarette argue that under the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures, the anonymous tip did not provide reasonable suspicion to justify pulling their vehicle over, unless the officers first corroborated reckless driving. The State of California contends that a stop based on such an anonymous tip provides reasonable suspicion, because there is a heightened government interest in protecting the public from imminent harm.
THE NEED FOR POLICE TO INTERVENE IN EMERGENCY SITUATIONS
California argues that determinations of reasonable suspicion are based on the totality of the circumstances, which include the government’s heightened interest in public safety. California stresses it has a heightened interest in protecting the public from drunken or reckless drivers. Thus, the State maintains that officers should not be required to confirm more than innocent details—such as a vehicle’s make, model, and license number—because waiting for confirmation of reckless or drunken driving could allow injury or death to motorists or pedestrians. California contends that the first observation of illegal behavior could be the last if the driver swerves into oncoming traffic. Additionally, California argues that unlike the case of a reported concealed illegal weapon where officers could have a consensual encounter with the alleged carrier, here officers have no less invasive method than stopping the vehicle.
Jose and Lorenzo Navarette argue that adopting California’s view would create an automobile exception to the requirement of reasonable suspicion. The Navarettes point to a distinction made by the United States Supreme Court between the danger presented by a concealed firearm as opposed to a bomb: a bomb presents a large enough threat that corroboration of illegal activity would not be necessary. The Navarettes contend that the threat of a bomb is potentially such a cataclysmic event and would justify immediate action, while a reckless or drunken driver presents a threat similar to that of a concealed weapon. The Navarettes state that there is no data to support the claim that a possibly drunken driver is more dangerous than a person illegally possessing a firearm, and they note that firearm possession can become firearm use in a matter of seconds. Moreover, the Navarettes claim that there is a difference in the threat presented by a driver who makes a seemingly reckless maneuver, possibly because it was necessary, and a driver who is too intoxicated to control the vehicle, and this difference could be determined by requiring officers to corroborate evidence of recklessness or intoxication.
THE RELIABILITY OF ANONYMOUS TIPS REGARDING IRREGULAR, RECKLESS, OR DRUNKEN DRIVING
Jose and Lorenzo Navarette contend that to adopt an automobile exception to the requirement that police corroborate illegal or dangerous activity when acting on an anonymous tip would allow anyone with a cell phone to harass a driver by placing an anonymous call falsely reporting drunken or reckless driving. Additionally, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (“NACDL”) argues that anonymous tips of irregular driving are especially unreliable. NACDL maintains that irregular driving is inherently subjective. In these cases the anonymous tipster does not know if the irregular driving is due to fatigue, momentary inattention, surprise, or other reasons, and the tipster has no opportunity to observe whether or not the irregular driving continues.
California counters that because there is a substantial government interest in protecting the public from drunken or reckless drivers, the possibility for abuse by mischievous individuals intending to harass a motorist is not sufficient to prevent an officer from stopping a vehicle to assess the threat to public safety. Further, California points out that such abuse of the 911 emergency report system is subject to criminal sanctions and is a misdemeanor in California. Therefore, California contends, the use of the 911 system has inherent indicia of reliability.
The Court’s decision in this case may draw a line reflecting the Court’s view of the appropriate balance between law enforcement’s ability to protect the public and an individual’s right to not be subjected to unreasonable searches and seizures.
In this case, the Court must determine whether the Fourth Amendment requires an arresting officer, who has received an anonymous tip regarding a drunk or reckless driver, to corroborate the tip before stopping the car.
The Navarettes argue that an officer violates the Fourth Amendment by stopping a vehicle and detaining its occupants solely based on an anonymous tip without corroborating the dangerous driving. The Navarettes further contend that an anonymous tip does not create the necessary level of suspicion to justify a stop without corroboration. California asserts that because of the significant government interest in public safety, there is no Fourth Amendment violation when an officer stops a driver solely based on a 911 call from an anonymous citizen reporting drunk or reckless driving. California argues that an anonymous tip, which includes a personal observation of reckless driving, is enough to create reasonable suspicion, even where the corroborated details alone are not illegal.
DOES THE FOURTH AMENDMENT REQUIRE AN OFFICER TO CORROBORATE AN ANONYMOUS TIP TO PROVIDE THE REASONABLE SUSPICION TO STOP A VEHICLE?
The Navarettes argue that under the Supreme Court’s holding in Florida v. J.L., anonymous tips without corroboration cannot create reasonable suspicion because an anonymous informant cannot be held accountable for false accusations. The Navarettes contend that in J.L. the Court refused to adopt a “firearm exception” to the reasonable-suspicion standard announced in Terry v. Ohio. Additionally, the Naverettes assert that the firearm exception rejected in J.L. cannot be distinguished from the “automobile exception,” which the Navarettes claim lower courts have used to allow stops based on uncorroborated, anonymous tips about reckless driving. The Navarettes argue that the newly-created “automobile exception” is inconsistent with the Court’s Fourth Amendment jurisprudence because it violates a citizen’s “right to be let alone—the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men.”
The Navarettes further argue that the California Court of Appeal’s holding that a vehicle can be stopped and its occupants detained based only an anonymous tip, with no corroboration, contradicts Supreme Court precedent regarding anonymous tips and vehicle stops. The Navarettes argue that when an officer relies solely on an anonymous tip, the officer must not only corroborate the innocent details of the tip, but the tip’s “assertion of legality.” Further, the Navarettes contend that even if an anonymous tipster had observed the reckless driving, there are other reasonable distractions that could cause seemingly reckless driving maneuvers, which under the totality of the circumstances, would not warrant a seizure of the vehicle and its occupants. The Navarettes argue that in J.L. the court specifically rejected the “firearm exception” to the corroboration requirement on the basis that an anonymous tip can be employed easily to deprive a citizen of their Fourth Amendment rights, and therefore, the Court required corroboration to back up any “assertion of illegality.”
California contends that the Naverettes misread the Court’s holding in Florida v. J.L. to establish a test where officers are required to corroborate an anonymous tip. California argues that the Navarettes ignore J.L.’s focus on the “circumstances presented and justifications offered” in favor of focusing only on the “assertion of illegality” to create a corroboration requirement. California argues that the J.L. holding is necessarily flexible and can account for the strength of the governmental interest at stake. Additionally, California asserts that the rule suggested by the Navarettes requiring an officer to corroborate the “assertion of illegality,” brings back the compartmentalized test rejected by the Court in Illinois v. Gates. California contends that in Gates, the Court rejected any “rigid compartmentalization of the inquiries into an informants ‘veracity,’ ‘reliability’ and basis of knowledge,” and to require officers to corroborate an “assertion of illegality” would be a return to the rigid approach rejected in Gates.
California further argues that it has not invoked an unconstitutional “automobile exception” to the reasonable suspicion standard. California asserts that it has adopted a permissible balancing of all pertinent factors, including protecting the public from immediate harm. California argues that the Navarettes are incorrect in asserting that the Fourth Amendment categorically requires an officer to corroborate dangerous driving when he or she has received an anonymous tip about reckless driving. According to the State, drunk or reckless driving presents an immediate and significant threat to public safety, and therefore officers may rely on an anonymous tip, without corroborating the illegality stated in the tip.
WHAT IS REQUIRED FOR AN ANONYMOUS TIP TO AMOUNT TO REASONABLE SUSPICION?
The Navarettes argue that without corroboration, an officer lacks the required reasonable suspicion to stop a vehicle and detain its occupants. The Navarettes contend that the “automobile exception,” requiring no corroboration, would create an exception to Terry’s requirement that an officer must have reasonable suspicion to stop and detain a vehicle’s occupants. The Navarettes contend that lower courts have created this exception by misreading a passage in J.L., which states that in some situations the alleged danger in an anonymous tip may be enough to justify a search without exhibiting reliability. The Navarettes contend that this “bright-line exception” to the reasonable suspicion requirement, as applied by several lower courts, runs counter to the Fourth Amendment. The Navarettes argue that the Court’s example in J.L.—a tip about a person carrying a bomb would not require a showing of reliability—is limited to those specific facts. The Navarettes contend that based on this limited example, the lower courts have created an unconstitutional “public safety exception” that undermines the reasonable-suspicion and corroboration requirements. The Navarettes further contend that there is no difference in the public safety concern associated with gun possession, which the Court found unpersuasive as a justification for the stop and search in J.L., and the public safety concerns associated with drunk driving.
California responds that the lower courts have not created a “public safety exception,” but instead look to the totality of the circumstances to assess the lawfulness of a stop or seizure. Among those circumstances, the State contends, is the nature of an offense, the state’s interest, and the individual’s privacy interest. According to the State, consideration of the state’s interest is not an exception, but a significant part of the balancing test announced in Terry. Although the Court determined in J.L. that an anonymous report of a gun offense was insufficient to establish reasonable suspicion in that case, California contends that the J.L. holding is limited to those specific facts. The State further argues that in the case of drunk driving the governmental interest is heightened because of the risk of immediate harm to the public; accordingly, that heightened interest weighs in favor of finding reasonable suspicion based on an anonymous tip without specific corroboration of illegality. California contends that drunk-driving offenses are much more than “possessory-offenses” and pose an imminent safety risk to the driver and everyone on the road.
In this case the Supreme Court will decide whether an anonymous tip of reckless driving must be corroborated to rise to the level of reasonable suspicion under the Fourth Amendment. This case will have substantial effects on the continuing development of Fourth Amendment law. The Navarettes argue that police violate the Fourth Amendment by stopping a vehicle based on an anonymous tip with no further corroboration. California argues that in this instance the government interest in protecting the public from drunk and reckless driving allows an anonymous tip without corroboration to warrant stopping a vehicle. The Court’s decision in this case will affect the balance between a citizen's Fourth Amendment right to not be subject to unwarranted intrusions and the government’s interest in protecting the public.
- Sherry Colb, The U.S. Supreme Court Considers Anonymous Tips: Part Two, Justia.com (Oct. 23, 2013)
- Lawrence Hurley,U.S. Justices agree to hear traffic stop case, Reuters (Oct. 1, 2013)