The U.S. Supreme Court Rules That Police Can Stop And Search Based Only on Anonymous Tips.
On Tuesday, the United States Supreme Court ruled that police cab stop and search a driver based only on an anonymous 911 call.
The decision came in a 5-4 decision split. Conservative Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the argument for the majority. Joining Thomas in the majority were Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Samuel Alito and Stephen Breyer, who defected from the court’s liberal bloc to provide the fifth and decisive vote.
Dissenting were Justice Antonin Scalia joined by the three more liberal members of f the court: Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
The five-justice court majority disagreed, and in so doing gave police new authority to rely on anonymous tipsters.
In California, an anonymous 911 caller in August of 2008, called in a report stating that a pickup truck had run her off the road. The caller gave the location of the incident as well as the make and model of the vehicle and license plate number.
The police eventually pulled over a truck matching that description and claim they smelled marijuana as they walked toward the vehicle. Officers found 30 pounds of marijuana in the truck and arrested the driver, Jose Prado Navarette.
Navarette attorneys challenged in court the search as well as the arrest, claiming that both were unconstitutional. The lawyers argued that the cops did not have reasonable suspicion to pull him over in the first place because they did not have any information on the person who phoned in the tip.
The court has held for a long time the notion that officers can make stops based on anonymous tips, but that the information in the tip must provide enough detail as to give rise to a reasonable suspicion that a crime has been committed or that criminal activity exists.
Justice Thomas, as author of the majority opinion, came to the conclusion that because the 911 caller said she had been forced off the road, she was an actual witness, and that police could in fact come to the conclusion based on her tip, that there was reason to believe the truck driver was drunk.
Justice Thomas said that relying on 911 tipsters is reasonable because “a 911 call has some features that allow for identifying and tracking callers” and the calls can be recorded.
Justice Scalia wrote a scathing dissent calling the Thomas opinion a “freedom-destroying cocktail” that encourages “malevolent” tipsters to make false reports. The issue, said Scalia, is “whether what she claimed to know was true.”
With regard to the assumption that the driver of the truck was drunk, Scalia stated that in this particular case, the police officers followed the pickup for over five minutes and “five minutes is a long time” without seeing any indication that the driver was driving under the influence of alcohol or even driving badly.
“After today’s opinion,” said Scalia, “all of us on the road, and not just drug dealers, are at risk … “