Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Supreme Court Watch Case Update: Navarette v. California: Corroborating Anonymous Tips in Regards to Drunk Driving


Docket Number: 12-9490
Argument Date: January 21, 2014

Whether the Fourth Amendment mandates an officer to corroborate an anonymous tip about a drunk or reckless driver before stopping the vehicle.

On March 28, 2000, the Court ruled in Florida v. J.L. that an anonymous tip identifying a man at a bus stop as having a gun did not justify a stop and frisk without some independent corroboration of the tip.  The Court, however, did not answer whether an anonymous tip that alleges great danger justifies a search where the tip was uncorroborated.  Although the Court said that allegations of a person carrying a bomb do not need to be corroborated before a search, this was mere dictum, failing to resolve the issue about drunk driving, which is at issue in the present case.

In Navarette v. California, the California Highway Patrol dispatchers received an anonymous telephone call alleging that a silver Ford F150 pickup truck ran the caller off the highway.  The anonymous caller also provided the car’s license plate number and the direction the car was driving on the highway.  This information was broadcasted to law enforcement and soon after two officers spotted the car.  While following the car, the officers did not witness any reckless driving, but stopped the vehicle nonetheless.  During the stop, after smelling marijuana, the officers searched the car and found four large bags of the illegal substance.  The officers proceeded to arrest the driver Lorenzo Navarette, and his passenger Jose Navarette.  Both men tried unsuccessfully to suppress the evidence of marijuana and ultimately pled guilty to transportation of marijuana.

The Navarette brothers are now appealing their convictions on Fourth Amendment grounds. The appeal is based on precedent stating that anonymous tips, alone, are insufficient to justify a search or seizure.  Since anonymous tips are inherently unreliable, officers are required to corroborate the information before conducting the search or seizure.

This case turns on whether there should be a “drunk or reckless driver exception” to the corroboration requirement of anonymous tips.  Since the Supreme Court decision in Florida v. J.L. did not address this issue, there is a split among the lower courts on deciding whether anonymous tips alleging drunk or reckless driving should be corroborated by police investigation before stopping a vehicle.  For example, the Eight Circuit upheld a vehicle stop even though the anonymous tip was not corroborated, reasoning that reckless driving is similar to a bomb-like danger that the Supreme Court referenced.  However, in Harris v. Commonwealth, the Virginia Supreme Court held that an anonymous tip about drunk driving did not justify a vehicle stop because the officer was unable to corroborate drunken or erratic driving despite having an opportunity to observe the driver before stopping the vehicle.  Due to this split, depending on where you are in the country, an officer can stop an alleged drunk driver based on an uncorroborated anonymous tip.
The uncertainty of whether an officer needs to corroborate a drunk and reckless driving tip is part of the Navarette brothers’ argument They argue that the Court should resolve this issue and rule that anonymous tips in regard to drunk or reckless driving should be corroborated to provide the requisite reasonable suspicion to justify a stop.  Since there was no corroboration in this case, the Supreme Court should reverse their convictions because precedent dictates that anonymous tips should be corroborated.

On the other side, the Californian government believes that the officers complied with the narrow holding of Florida v. J.L., namely that that case was limited to an anonymous report of a nonthreatening possessory offense.  California’s contention is supported by other jurisdictions that have interpreted Florida v. J.L. as providing a balancing act, that “the need for corroboration of illegal conduct identified by the anonymous tipster is offset by the inherent danger of the conduct itself and the overall reliability of the tip.”  For these jurisdictions the “conduct” is drunk driving.

On April 22, 2014, the United States Supreme Court rendered an opinion in Navarette v. California.  Justice Thomas, writing for the majority, upheld the California Court of Appeals decision holding that conducting the traffic stop complied with the Fourth Amendment.  The stop, based on the facts of this case, complied with Fourth Amendment because under the totality of the circumstances, the officer had reasonable suspicion to stop the car, believing the driver was intoxicated.

The Court reached its decision by first analyzing its Fourth Amendment jurisprudence and seeing how the facts of this case fit into the established case law.  In order to conduct a traffic stop, an officer needs “reasonable suspicion,” which is dependent on both the quality of the information and its degree of reliability.  Reasonable suspicion requires less than probable cause and less than a preponderance of the evidence.
Reasonable suspicion to conduct a traffic stop applies in the context of anonymous tips given to the police.  Anonymous tips alone are rarely held to rise to the level of reasonable suspicion.  However, under certain circumstances, the Court said that some anonymous tips can be sufficiently reliable to make a Terry stop.  One such circumstance was found in Alabama v. White, where the Court held that the anonymous tip given to the police held enough predictive information to imply that the tipster was familiar with the driver’s activities and had reliable access to information in the driver’s illegal activities.  But, an anonymous tip saying that a man in a plaid shirt at a bus stop was carrying a gun, was not enough to give officers reasonable suspicion.
By looking at these two cases, the Court held that the 911 phone call was sufficiently reliable to conduct the traffic stop.  The Court found that the anonymous tip was reliable because it was akin to eyewitness testimony, that the time span between the incident and the phone call was indicates that the caller made the call right after the caller was run off the road, and the use of the 911 emergency system.  The caller used “explicit and detailed description” of the wrongdoing along with descriptive indicators of the car. In looking at the time frame between the time of the incident and the time the 911 call was made, the Court held that the tip was reliable because it was contemporaneous.  Looking to the law of evidence, Justice Thomas compared this to the present sense impression and excited utterance hearsay exceptions.  Finally, in looking at the fact that the caller used the 911 emergency system, the Court held that because these calls can be recorded, traced, and the caller can be identified, it justified the officer’s reliance of the anonymous tip.
After reaching the decision that the call was reliable to create reasonable suspicion that “criminal activity may be afoot,” the Court looked to see if it created reasonable suspicion to think that drunk driving was occurring.  The Court held that it was based on the objectively reasonable viewpoint of a police officer and the allegations made by the caller.
Justice Scalia, along with three other Justices dissented, saying that he would reverse the California Court of Appeals.  He reasoned that the police officers knew nothing about the tipster and argued that the hearsay exceptions were an inappropriate analogy.  Furthermore, Justice Scalia challenged the reasoning about the 911 emergency systems’ ability to identify callers because an average anonymous caller may not know about this capability and we do not know if this particular caller knew about it.  Finally, Justice Scalia held that the officers, per their own observations, had good reason to believe that the driver was not drunk since the driver was not driving recklessly or in any manner to suggest that he was drunk. 

The Court here did not carve out a Fourth Amendment exception for drunk driving.  Rather, the Court limited their opinion to the facts of this case and analyzed it based on existing case law.  While on the one hand it appears that the Court maintained the status quo in regards to anonymous tips, it has in some sense lowered the strict anonymous tips alone are not enough to establish reasonable suspicion bar.  In a very similar or identical future fact pattern, a police officer will need less evidence to conduct a traffic stop. 

Written by Cassandre Plantin
Staffer, Criminal Law Practitioner 

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