Washington, D.C. – The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that police can pull over a driver for reckless or drunken driving based solely on an anonymous 911 tip without an officer actually witnessing the individual’s driving.
The 5-4 decision by justices can be seen as a victory for some, but as Justice Scalia wrote in his dissenting opinion “All of us on the road, and not just drug dealers, are at risk …”
The case before the Supreme Court centered on a California man who was arrested from possessing thirty pounds of marijuana in 2008 after a traffic stop which he claims violated his Fourth Amendment rights.
On that night, an unidentified woman called 911 to report that a pickup truck sideswiped her and ran her off the road. The caller was able to give a description of the vehicle including the make, model and tag number. That was enough information to locate the vehicle.
Police followed the pickup truck for five minutes before they initiated a stop. It doesn’t appear that during those five minutes the driver was being reckless, but he was pulled over regardless. As officers approached the vehicle they noticed a strong odor of marijuana emanating from the truck. In the search, police found thirty pounds of marijuana and placed the driver, Jose Prado Navarette, under arrest for drug trafficking.
Navarette challenged his arrest and charges because he said police did not have reasonable suspicion to conduct the stop. And police did not have could not identify the 911 caller and have no way to tell if the tip was reliable.
Five of the justices however disagreed with that argument and held that police can stop a driver based on an uncorroborated anonymous tip. Although the Supreme Court has, in the past established that police can rely on anonymous tips, the information provided must give enough detail to give rise to a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. The majority of justices concluded that the 911 caller was a witness because she was run off the road and that police could infer that the driver was drunk.
Attorneys arguing for the California and the Obama administration defended the stop, stating that keeping drunken drivers off the road is a matter of public safety which outweighs the intrusion of a traffic stop, the AP reported.
Justice Scalia vehemently disagreed and in his scornful minority described the opinion as a “freedom-destroying cocktail” that could encourage tipsters with ill-intent to make false accusations.
Justice Sotomayor who joined Scalia in his dissenting opinion said that whether a driver is being “reckless” is a judgment based on a person’s opinion. She presented the example of her mother who would consider driving just one mile over the speed limit as “reckless driving.”
The ruling could make it difficult for DUI attorneys to question the validity of a traffic stop—a common DUI defense. Fortunately, DUI attorneys have a number of defense strategies they can employ, but this particular ruling could lead to unnecessary and unjustified DUI stops.