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Saturday, June 22, 2024 | Back issues
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Upheld Vehicle Search Inspires Biting Dissent

WASHINGTON (CN) - An anonymous 911 call reporting a reckless driver justified a traffic stop that led to a pot bust, the unusually divided Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.

Justice Antonin Scalia sided with the court's liberal minority for the case, but Justice Stephen Breyer's vote gave the conservative majority the win.

The case concerns a tip to California Highway Patrol in 2008 by a driver whom a silver pickup had purportedly run off the road on Highway 1 near Ft. Bragg.

When officers found the truck, however, they observed no erratic driving after following for several miles. They nevertheless 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 unsuccessfully 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.

In exchange for a dismissal of the possession-for-sale charge, the men eventually pleaded guilty to transportation of marijuana.

Despite a relatively light sentence, the Navarettes appealed the evidence-suppression issue. They told California's 1st Appellate District 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.

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

The U.S. Supreme Court granted the Navarettes certiorari six months ago, agreeing to determine whether the Fourth Amendment requires officers to corroborate an anonymous reckless driving tip before stopping a vehicle.

They affirmed, 5-4, Tuesday.

"Even assuming for present purposes that the 911 call was anonymous, we conclude that the call bore adequate indicia of reliability for the officer to credit the caller's account," Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the majority. "The officer was therefore justified in proceeding from the premise that the truck had, in fact, caused the caller's car to be dangerously diverted from the highway."

The timeline and the safeguards of the 911 system further support the tipster's credibility, according to the ruling.

It is also noteworthy that "the 911 caller in this case reported more than a minor traffic infraction and more than a conclusory allegation of drunk or reckless driving," Thomas wrote.

"Instead, she alleged a specific and dangerous result of the driver's conduct: runninganother car off the highway," he continued. "That conduct bears too great a resemblance to paradigmatic manifestations of drunk driving to be dismissed as an isolated example of recklessness. Running another vehicle off the road suggests lane positioning problems, decreased vigilance, impaired judgment, or some combination of those recognized drunk driving cues. And the experience of many officers suggests that a driver who almost strikes a vehicle or another object - the exact scenario that ordinarily causes 'running [another vehicle] off the roadway' - is likely intoxicated. As a result, we cannot say that the officer acted unreasonably under these circumstances in stopping a driver whose alleged conduct was a significant indicator of drunk driving."

Scalia wrote the dissent in which Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor joined.

It emphasizes that the majority's holding departs from the normal Fourth Amendment requirement to corroborate anonymous tips.

This new rule states that, "so long as the caller identifies where the car is, anonymous claims of a single instance of possibly careless or reckless driving, called in to 911, will support a traffic stop," Scalia wrote.

"This is not my concept, and I am sure would not be the Framers', of a people secure from unreasonable searches and seizures," he continued. "I would reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeal of California."

Though the 911 system does track call locations and other data, the California Highway Patrol knew nothing about the tipster in this case, the dissent states.

"Anonymity is especially suspicious with respect to the call that is the subject of the present case," Scalia wrote. "When does a victim complain to the police about an arguably criminal act (running the victim off the road) without giving his identity, so that he can accuse and testify when the culprit is caught?" (Parentheses in original.)

That police have technological advances now to help them track down those who would spoof 911 is immaterial "unless the anonymous caller was aware of that fact," Scalia added (emphasis in original).

Even if a truck driver had run the tipster off the road, it does not follow that this driver was drunk, according to the dissent.

"Lorenzo mighthave been distracted by his use of a hands-free cell phone," Scalia wrote. "Or, indeed, he might have intentionally forced the tipster off the road because of some personal animus, or hostility to her 'Make Love, Not War' bumper sticker. I fail to see how reasonable suspicion of a discrete instance of irregular or hazardous driving generates a reasonable suspicion of ongoing intoxicated driving. What proportion of the hundreds of thousands - perhaps millions - of careless, reckless, or intentional traffic violations committed each day is attributable to drunken drivers? I say 0.1 percent. I have no basis for that except my own guesswork. But unless the court has some basis in reality to believe that the proportion is many orders of magnitude above that - say 1in 10 or at least 1 in 20 - it has no grounds for its unsupported assertion that the tipster's report in this case gave rise to a reasonable suspicion of drunken driving."

Worse for the state's case is that the police here followed the truck when they found it for five minutes and observed no reckless driving, the dissent emphasizes.

"I take it as a fundamental premise of our intoxicated-driving laws that a driver soused enough to swerve once can be expected to swerve again - and soon," Scalia wrote. "If he does not, and if the only evidence of his first episode of irregular driving is a mere inference from an uncorroborated, vague, and nameless tip, then the Fourth Amendment requires that he be left alone."

A clever pun caps of the 11-page dissent.

"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," Scalia wrote.

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