On the 4th Amendment: Police searches & anonymous tips (Navarette v. California)

Navarette v. California

Oral Argument: January 21, 2014

5-Cent Explanation:

The question raised in this case is whether the police can stop a vehicle based upon information provided by an anonymous caller alleging reckless driving that the officers did not personally observe.

10-Cent Explanation:

On August 23, 2008, after receiving what the courts are considering an anonymous 911 call about a “reckless driver” who had run him or her off the road, a police dispatcher provided information to California Highway Patrol including the color, make, model, license plate and direction of flight of the allegedly offending vehicle. Soon after, an officer and a sergeant observed a vehicle matching the description approximately 19 miles from the site of the initial encounter that had prompted the 911 call.

Although the officers had not spoken directly with the 911-caller nor had they observed any erratic or reckless driving after following him for five minutes,

they stopped the vehicle based upon the information provided by the dispatcher.

Approaching the vehicle, the officers asked the driver, Lorenzo Navarette, and the passenger, Jose Navarette, for identification. During this exchange the officers recognized the smell of marijuana emanating from the truck’s rear bed compartment which was not visible due to a camper shell with tinted windows that covered the compartment area. The officers ordered the two men to exit the vehicle to conduct a more thorough search. The subsequent search produced enough marijuana–“four large bags,” according to California’s brief–to charge the two men with possession with intent to sell and transportation of the illegal product.

The appeal claim was rejected by the higher courts in California before it went to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The question raised in this case is whether the police can stop a vehicle based upon information provided by an anonymous caller alleging reckless driving that the officers did not personally observe.

The case is an important one relating to how law enforcement officials may gather evidence during an investigation prior to establishing probable cause. According to the exclusionary rule precedent established for state and local authorities in Mapp v Ohio (1961), if the reasoning for the initial stop is deemed unlawful, any evidence secured as a result of that stop cannot be admitted as evidence pointing to guilt in court.

Anonymous tips to law enforcement (and the actions of the police produced by those tips) have a history of skepticism in the Supreme Court. A series of cases have all concluded the general principle that the police must guard individual liberties in a reasonable manner from the possibility of using a tip as a justification for rampant stops of would-be innocent citizens.

Relating to the facts of this case, precedent from the California Supreme Court–People v Wells (2006)–supports the police stopping a vehicle before corroborating the specific charge when the 911 caller is alleging that the driver may be intoxicated. The Supreme Court was left with the challenge to determine if the same leeway is afforded to police when the anonymous caller reports reckless driving.

Lawyers for the two men charged in this case argue that providing the police the power to detain a vehicle–‘seize’ the truck and its occupants in Fourth Amendment vernacular–solely based upon an anonymous call alleging reckless driving would be too vague. Leaving this much discretion in the hands of the police, they reason, would inevitably lead to the kind of fishing expeditions of individuals the Court has spent decades trying to prevent.

To justify a stop by police conducted for investigative purposes, Navarette’s brief further argues, the observations of the individual officer must be taken into account, as outlined by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1968 in Terry v Ohio. Allowing the police to conduct the type of stop/seizure outlined in this case would amount to an “automobile exception,” they reason.

California’s brief, in part, details the power granted in Wells and furthers their argument with the reasoning found in Florida v J.L. (2000). In that case the U.S. Supreme Court found that the “innocent details” of a 911 call, including a vehicle’s make, model, color and direction of flight, may be used to provide reasonable suspicion to justify a stop.

Decision:  5-4, upholding the search, finding no 4th Amendment violation by California state police.  The anonymous tip was legit, according to the majority opinion written by Justice Thomas (he speaks!!…via the pen) and joined by an atypical cast of Justices Alito, Breyer, Kennedy, and Roberts.  The majority was satisfied with the specificity of details the caller gave to the 911 dispatcher and the respective steps taken that lead police to stop and search Navarette’s vehicle, uncovering the evidence.  That being said, police can use the tip, take into consideration the strength and depth of details given by the caller, and the totality of the circumstances to make the call on stopping and searching the vehicle.  It should be noted that this is a case about an erratic driver who, if intoxicated, would’ve not only compromised the safety of the caller by running her/him off the road, but posed a public safety threat when he continued driving.  That, according the majority, was a critical factor further supporting the stop and search.  Does this decision mean the floodgates are open for people to call 911 for any reason and give potentially false details that will result in more police searches?  Despite the officers not personally witnessing any erratic driving, Thomas and the majority expressed a confidence that the prospect of retribution for fake or false calls would deter any such action given the fact that 911 calls can be traced back to the caller and GPS information can locate the place where the call came in.  (So much for anonymity when placing a 911 call.)

The minority expressed doubt in this deterrence and greater concern in the longterm consequences of this decision.  The dissent was written by Justice Scalia who, in recent years, has been the 4th Amendment champion criticizing police actions that invade private and personal spaces like GPS devices secretly placed on cars (U.S. v. Jones), thermal-imaging technology used to screen for marijuana-growing equipment (Kyllo v. U.S.), and the use of drug dogs outside homes (FL v. Jardines).  Scalia wrote “The Court’s opinion serves up a freedom-destroying cocktail consisting of two parts patent falsity: (1) that anonymous 911 reports of traffic violations are reliable so long as they correctly identify a car and its location, and (2) that a single instance of careless or reckless driving necessarily supports a reasonable suspicion of drunkenness. All the malevolent 911 caller need do is assert a traffic violation, and the targeted car will be stopped, forcibly if necessary, by the police. If the driver turns out not to be drunk (which will almost always be the case), the caller need fear no consequences, even if 911 knows his identity. After all, he never alleged drunkenness, but merely called in a traffic violation — and on that point his word is as good as his victim’s.”  Is there anything better than a scathing Scalia dissent?  Are there any varieties of Scalia dissents other than scathing?  Doubtful.  While we can appreciate any dissent, we also appreciate the timeliness of this case and decision given the recent increase in coverage of stop and search procedures in cities throughout the U.S.  Check out the opinions here.