Fourth Amendment - Search and Seizure - Anonymous Tips and Suspected Drunk Driving

Harvard Law Review, November 2014 | Go to article overview

Fourth Amendment - Search and Seizure - Anonymous Tips and Suspected Drunk Driving


Alone, anonymous tips generally cannot provide the reasonable suspicion the Fourth Amendment demands police have before conducting a traffic stop. (1) Some commentators urge that the risks of drunk driving warrant lowering the reliability threshold that an informant's claims must clear before prompting constitutionally sufficient suspicion to justify a stop. (2) Yielding to such pressure, some states permit stops based upon anonymous tips that allege behavior that could indicate drunk driving. (3) Last Term, in Navarette v. California, (4) the Supreme Court held that an anonymous tipster's claim that a driver had recently run her off the road gave police reasonable suspicion, under the totality of the circumstances, to stop that driver's vehicle because the driver may have been intoxicated. (5) The controversial tip enabled the police to confirm only sparse, public details about lawful behavior, which precedent suggests should not have raised the required suspicion. Yet in applying the totality of the circumstances test, the Court used fine factual distinctions between Navarette and earlier cases to illuminate different factors relevant to reliability--a move that may unnecessarily increase law enforcement's broad authority to stop drivers.

On an August afternoon in 2008, a dispatcher at the California Highway Patrol (CHP) call center in Mendocino County answered a call from a counterpart in another county. (6) The caller relayed the details of a recent tip: "[A] silver Ford F150 pickup truck with license plate number 8D94925 had run an unidentified reporting party off the roadway...." (7) The Mendocino dispatch worker alerted another colleague via computer; that colleague then broadcast the message to CHP officers at 3:47 p.m. (8) By 4:00 p.m., an officer had spotted a vehicle matching the reported description. (9) Although he followed the truck for five minutes without observing any abnormal driving, (10) at around 4:05 p.m. the officer pulled the vehicle over. (11)

The officer, along with a colleague who joined him at the scene, collected identification from the truck's occupants--Lorenzo Prado Navarette and Jose Prado Navarette--and returned to a patrol car to verify the documents. (12) Upon circling back for more information, the officers noticed the odor of marijuana. (13) In a subsequent search of the truck, they found thirty pounds of the drug. (14) They arrested both occupants. (15)

Claiming that "the officer lacked reasonable suspicion of criminal activity" when he pulled them over, the defendants sought suppression of the evidence collected during the stop on Fourth Amendment grounds. (16) They asserted that the anonymous "tipster's report was too vague" to warrant the stop "without further inquiry by the officers." (17) Furthermore, the officers had not "directly observe[d] any erratic driving." (18) After their repeated motions to suppress the evidence failed, (19) the defendants pled guilty and received sentences of "90 days in jail plus three years of probation." (20)

On the appeal of the defendants' convictions, the California Court of Appeal "conclude[d] that the totality of the circumstances ... justified the traffic stop." (21) Observing that (1) the tip "came from the victim of the reported reckless driving"; (2) law enforcement promptly confirmed "significant innocent details of the tip"; and (3) the alleged behavior presented "ongoing danger to other motorists," (22) the appeals court held that the government had shown that law enforcement "had reasonable suspicion ... justifying their investigative stop of ... [the] vehicle." (23)

The Supreme Court affirmed. Writing for a bare majority of the Court, Justice Thomas (24) found that the "totality of the circumstances" established "reasonable suspicion that the driver was intoxicated." (25) He first explained that the Fourth Amendment "permits brief investigative stops" (26) when law enforcement has some "particularized and objective basis for suspecting the particular person stopped of criminal activity. …

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