Anonymous Police Tips Face High Court Scrutiny
Anyone who has driven on Highway 1 in California knows that parts of the road are curvy and hard to maneuver. But does an anonymous tip about a swerving car give a cop license to pull the vehicle over even though the officer did not see dangerous driving?
The Supreme Court will consider that question on Jan. 21 in Navarette v. California.
The government says these stops are necessary to prevent accidents caused by drunk driving. But an amicus brief by the University of Virginia School of Law Supreme Court Litigation Clinic, on behalf of two criminal defense associations, argues that police must corroborate anonymous claims of criminality to have reasonable suspicion to stop a car.
Lorenzo Prado Navarette and Jose Prado Navarette were on Highway 1 in northern California on an August afternoon in 2009 when an unknown tipster called 911 claiming that the silver Ford F150 the two men were driving ran him off the road. Police followed the pickup truck for five minutes and did not see any bad driving. They stopped the vehicle anyway, smelled marijuana and found more than 30 pounds of the substance. Police arrested the Navarettes on drug charges.
The Navarettes tried to suppress the drug evidence on the ground that the police had no right to stop the car. A judge denied that motion, and the men pleaded guilty to transportation of marijuana.
The Virginia clinic, writing for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the National Association of Federal Defenders, argues that Florida v. J.L. requires police to see bad driving themselves, or verify an anonymous tip in some other way, to have the authority to stop a car. After all, the brief explains, there are perfectly innocent reasons why a car may swerve, so reliance only on an uncorroborated tip can violate the Fourth Amendment.
“The anonymous tipster typically has no reason to know why—whether because of fatigue, momentary inattention, surprise, understandable distraction, or other reasons—someone might be driving irregularly,” Daniel Ortiz, who directs the Virginia clinic, wrote in the brief.
Investigatory stops like these are governed by 1968’s Terry v. Ohio, under which police can question someone if they have “reasonable suspicion” that he is engaged in a crime. For a cop to meet this standard through an anonymous tip, the tipster must have had “knowledge of concealed criminal activity,” the Supreme Court found in 2000’s J.L.
At issue in Navarette is under what circumstances these tipsters’ claims are reliable enough for a cop to act on them.
In J.L, the high court invalidated a stop and frisk based just on a tip that a man wearing a plaid shirt at a bus stop had a gun. The justices explained that the police had no way to vet the caller’s claim prior to the search.