DUI and Anonymous Tips

Drunken driving is a serious matter, but so is the loss of our freedom to come and go as we please without police interference.

Navarette v. California, 134 S.Ct. 1683, 1696 (April 22nd, 2014)
(5-4 decision) (Scalia, J, dissenting)


Almost all DUI cases start with the police stopping a person for a traffic “violation” that they observed themselves. However, occasionally someone calls 911 to report a driver. These days 911 calls are largely traceable both to the return number and the cell phone caller’s location. And almost all 911 dispatchers ask the caller his or her name. Sometimes, however, the caller does not want to be identified. These are called “anonymous tips.” Courts have traditionally, and rightfully, found anonymous tips suspicious.

However, a recent US Supreme Court case, highly controversial, gives police more leeway to stop a driver solely on the basis anonymous tip of a single instance of bad driving, even where the police themselves follow a vehicle and see only good driving.

In Navarette v. California, 134 S.Ct. 1683, 1696 (April 22nd, 2014), the Court, in a 5-4 decision delivered by Justice Thomas, held that an anonymous tip that only includes the vehicle plate number and model, and the claim “he ran the party off the road,” is sufficient for police to legally stop a driver for suspicion of DUI, even if the police themselves follow the vehicle and see no signs of drunken driven.

There, on a sunny California summer afternoon, a 911 dispatcher in Mendocino County, famous for it’s wine, answered a call from a dispatcher in neighboring Humboldt County, famous for another California product. It read: “ . . . southbound Highway 1 at mile marker 88, Silver Ford 150 pickup. Plate of 8–David–94925.  Ran the reporting party off the roadway and was last seen approximately five [minutes] ago.’ ” Navarette, supra,  134 S.Ct. at 1687 (emphasis added).

The Mendocino dispatcher then rebroadcast information as “Attention, coastal units. BOL for – well, in this case it was a reckless driver.” Petitioner’s Brief at 2. The re-broadcast did not mention being run off the road. A California Highway Patrol(CHP) officer heard: “dispatch of a reckless driver southbound on Highway 1,” in the area he was patrolling. Id. Again, CHP received no specific information about being “run off the road.” Rather, more generally, a “reckless driver.”

Soon after, a CHP officer spotted the truck and followed it for approximately five full minutes, during which time he saw no indications of bad driving at all, much less “reckless” driving. Nevertheless, CHP pulled the truck over for suspicion of “reckless driving” based solely on the 2nd hand anonymous tip. A search of the truck revealed thirty pounds of marijuana.

CHP arrested the driver, Lorenzo Navarette, who moved to suppress the evidence, in Superior Court, arguing that the stop based on the anonymous tip violated the Fourth Amendment. The Superior court denied the motion and the California Court of Appeals affirmed.

The Supreme Court, upholding the stop, concluded “that the behavior alleged by the 911 caller, “viewed from the standpoint of an objectively reasonable police officer, amount[s] to reasonable suspicion” of drunk driving.” In Navarette, supra, 134 S.Ct. 1683, 1696 , (internal citations omitted). The Court, so concluded, even though the police had not alleged a specific violation of drunk driving laws. Ibid.  In short, it seems the Court, through Justice Thomas offered “drunk driving” sua sponte as the justification, even though it was never mentioned in any dispatch.

In a scathing dissent, Justice Anton Scalia observed: “I fail to see how reasonable suspicion of a discrete instance of irregular or hazardous driving generates a reasonable suspicion of ongoing intoxicated driving.” Navarette, supra, 134 S.Ct. 1683, 1695 (Scalia, J., dissenting). Joined by three other members of the Court, Justice Scalia concluded that “the only basis for the stop that has been asserted in this litigation. The stop required suspicion of an ongoing crime, not merely suspicion of having run someone off the road earlier. And driving while being a careless or reckless person, unlike driving while being a drunk person, is not an ongoing crime.” Id.

Thus, a divided court has upheld a wafer-thin stop, transmogrifying a report of “reckless driving” into ongoing “drunken driving” without any real support in the record to do so. It seems, at the least, an invitation for the police to support with a single instance of poor driving. Moreover, it loosens the standards for anonymous tips with DUI as well as other vehicular cases. Based on this caselaw, it seems, as Justice Scalia points out, an anonymous tipster can now call in a stop for almost any reason, which the police can then legally execute. In short,this case further erodes our Fourth Amendment protections, as Justice Scalia lamented: “Drunken driving is a serious matter, but so is the loss of our freedom to come and go as we please without police interference.” Id.

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Michael Harwin

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