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Wednesday, May 29, 2024 | Back issues
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Pot Bust by Traffic Cops Picked Up by Justices

(CN) - The Supreme Court said it will take up whether an anonymous 911 call reporting a reckless driver justified a search that led to a pot bust.

In 2008, a California Highway Patrol dispatcher received a tip from a driver who had been run off the road by a silver pickup on Highway 1 near Ft. Bragg. Officers found the truck, followed for several miles and observed no erratic driving.

However, officers pulled over the vehicle and smelled marijuana. A search of the truck netted four bags of pot, fertilizer and hand clippers - resulting in the arrest of the occupants, Lorenzo and Jose Navarette of Santa Rosa, Calif.

The Navarettes fought to suppress the fruits of the traffic stop-turned-pot bust search. They argued that the anonymous tip was too vague to support the stop, and that officers observed nothing while following to establish a reasonable suspicion of unlawful activity.

A magistrate declined to suppress, and the men eventually pled guilty to transportation of marijuana in exchange for a dismissal of the possession for sale charge.

Despite a relatively light sentence, the Navarettes appealed the rejection of their motion to suppress to California's 1st Appellate District. There, the men argued that the prosecution failed to link its chain of evidence - from the anonymous tipster, to the Humboldt County dispatcher, to the Mendocino County dispatcher and finally to the CHP officers who made the stop - to a reasonable suspicion of illegal activity.

In a 2012 unpublished opinion, the appeals court held that given the dangers of the winding, undivided two-lane Highway 1, a report of reckless driving necessitated prompt and decisive action by the CHP.

"The anonymous tip itself had several indicia of reliability - the content of the tip strongly suggested it came from the victim and the tipster accurately described the appearance, location and direction of the vehicle," the appellate panel wrote. "In these circumstances, the officers could reasonably conclude there was a risk to public safety that necessitated a prompt investigative stop despite their brief observation of the vehicle without incident."

In their certiorari petition, the Navarettes asked the justices to determine whether the Fourth Amendment requires officers to corroborate an anonymous reckless driving tip before stopping a vehicle. The high court declined to consider their second question, regarding whether such tips provide all the reasonable suspicion officers need to make the stop even when they observe nothing illegal.

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