On October 1, 2013, the United States Supreme Court granted certiorari in Navarette v. California, the case questions whether an anonymous tip about a motorist’s reckless driving is enough reasonable suspicion for a police officer to pull over that motorist, without the officer first corroborating the tip with his own investigation. This case is timely considering the present division among state and federal courts on this issue.
Four years ago, the Court declined to hear an appeal from Virginia officials over the same issue, after the Virginia State Supreme Court sided with a defendant who was arrested after police received an anonymous tip that he was driving while intoxicated. Chief Justice John Roberts dissented, stating that the “stakes are high” and explained why the Court should have agreed to hear the case. Specifically, Roberts stated that the Virginia decision grants “drunk drivers ‘one free swerve’ before they can legally be pulled over by police” and explained the potential unfortunate consequences of an officer being powerless to pull someone over, “even for a quick check.” Now, Roberts will have his chance to review the issue with his fellow justices, deciding the important issue of whether anonymous tips can be constitutionally sufficient justification for an officer to pull over a motorist who is alleged to be driving recklessly.
The present case, Navarette v. California, involves two brothers who pled guilty to transporting marijuana after California Highway Patrol officers pulled over their silver Ford 150 pickup based on an anonymous call reporting the motorist’s alleged reckless driving. In this case, the anonymous caller stated that the vehicle had run the caller off the road, and identified the vehicle by its model, color, and license plate number. The officers did not personally observe any erratic driving prior to stopping the vehicle. Once the brothers were pulled over, however, the officers searched the truck, finding four large bags of marijuana, and arrested driver Lorenzo Prado Navarette and passenger Jose Prado Navarette. The Navarette brothers pled guilty and are now appealing their convictions. The brothers are arguing that the traffic stop violated their constitutional rights, based on prior precedents establishing that anonymous tips by themselves ordinarily are not sufficient for police to detain or search someone.
It is well established that anonymous tips alone are not sufficient for creating the reasonable suspicion necessary for conducting a stop. Rather, the officer must corroborate the information provided in the anonymous tip by performing an independent police investigation. Additionally, it is also well established that an officer may not pull over a motorist without an objective basis for doing so. Notably, even when stops are pretextual, the officer must first witness the motorist commit a traffic violation, however minor, before being legally justified in pulling over the motorist.
The policy behind the corroboration requirement for anonymous tips is clear: we do not want to permit police officers to conduct stops, seizures, or searches on innocent people, as their constitutional liberties are at stake. Therefore, when police officers want to make a stop based on an anonymous informant’s tip, they must have corroboration in order to ensure that verification of the tip’s reliability has been performed. Courts have often noted that independent police corroboration is particularly crucial when dealing with anonymous informants because, unlike with known informants, the veracity and knowledge of the anonymous informant is unknown. Additionally, courts have previously held that merely identifying a person that matches an informant’s physical description and location of a person will not suffice for corroboration. Further, simply because the informant’s tip turned out to be correct does not suggest that the officers, prior to their stop, had a reasonable basis for suspecting a person to be engaging in unlawful conduct.
Accordingly, the crucial question for the Justices to decide in the Navarette case is whether anonymous tips about reckless or drunk driving should be treated differently than other anonymous tips. While the argument in favor of preventing accidents due to drunk or reckless driving is strong, the importance of upholding the constitutional guarantees against unreasonable searches and seizures would seemingly outweigh the contention for allowing the exception. When innocent persons’ liberties are at stake, the Supreme Court should find that preserving this right is more crucial than preventing the rare instances in which an anonymous tip is accurate. Above all, holding the police to their investigative duties, rather than allowing them to perform arbitrary stops based on anonymous tips, is a crucial duty that the Court must maintain. Otherwise, innocent persons may be stopped simply because the personal agenda or vendetta of an anonymous person “says so.”
Senior Staffer, Criminal Law Practitioner
Image by John L Marino, via Wikimedia Commons.
 Id. (Chief Justice Roberts, dissenting).
 Alabama v. White, 496 U.S. 325 (1990).
 See Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806 (1996); Duckett v. United States, 886 A.2d 548, 551 (D.C. 2005).
 Whren, 517 U.S. at 806.
 Alabama v. White, 496 U.S. 325 (1990).
 See Florida v. J.L., 529 U.S. 266, 272 (2000) (holding that police officers who identified a person based on the informant’s description of location and apparel worn by the suspect, was not sufficient corroboration).
 See id.