Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Supreme Court Rules on Anonymous Reports of Drunk Driving

A California Highway Patrol officer had just pulled over a pickup truck. As he and another officer approached it on foot, they noticed the distinct odor of marijuana. Now armed with probable cause, they searched the truck bed. In it they found 30 pounds of cannabis.

In the course of the subsequent prosecution, the truck’s occupants moved to suppress evidence of the marijuana. Their claim wasn’t that the officers lacked a basis to search the vehicle once they approached it, but that the detaining officer didn’t have grounds to stop them in the first place. Their motion to suppress made it all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, which decided the case on Tuesday. (Navarette v. California, 572 U. S. ____ (2014).)

Legal Basis for a Stop?

At 3:47 p.m. on the day in question, the local 911 dispatch team had broadcast a report of a Ford pickup travelling southbound on the freeway. The woman who had called 911 reported that the pickup had run her off the road. (The exact information was that the truck “[r]an the reporting party off the roadway and was last seen approximately five [minutes] ago.”)

At the time of the 911 broadcast, the closest-by CHP officer was travelling northbound on the freeway. At 4:00 p.m., he saw the pickup travelling southbound
—he didn't notice anything unusual about its movements. He made a U-turn, caught up to it, then pulled it over at 4:05 p.m. The second officer arrived shortly thereafter.

Tipsters and Reasonable Suspicion

Officers may detain, rather than arrest, people they reasonably suspect to be involved in crime. If the detention arouses further suspicion—as when officers catch a waft of an illegal substance—there’s probable cause for a search or arrest.

Reasonable suspicion for a detention can grow out of an officer’s personal observation or come from a third person. It can even come from an anonymous third person, but only when something about the information hints that it’s reliable.

911 Tips Going Forward

In the case at hand, the Supreme Court found that the 911 call was credible enough for CHP officers to rely on it as evidence of drunk driving. The tipster’s report of being run off the road indicated that she actually witnessed dangerous driving. The caller also gave an accurate, immediate description of the truck and its location, suggesting to the Court that she was telling the truth. And, in a bit of an overreach, the Court cited the simple fact that she called 911. Its theory was that, since 911 callers can often be identified, and their calls traced and recorded, and since false 911 reports are crimes, deceptive people will “think twice" before dialing. (Navarette, supra.)

The Court’s ruling validates a law-enforcement tool for nabbing drunk and dangerous drivers. Of course, it also makes it easier to sic the cops on people minding their own business. As the four dissenting Justices put it, “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.”