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Opinion analysis: Big new role for anonymous tipsters


Starting with one unproved claim from an unknown source, letting it lead to a supposition, and then allowing it to justify taking action, the Supreme Court in a closely divided ruling Tuesday gave police broad new authority to turn anonymous tips into traffic stops, and then, often, into arrests.  Dividing five to four, the Court rejected the argument that police must find specific proof of what an anonymous tipster reports before they may stop a motorist on the highway.

The ruling in Navarette v. California, written by Justice Clarence Thomas, in part seemed to be based on prior understandings of when an anonymous tip gives police a valid basis for acting.  But, as the opinion unfolded, it appeared that the Court had added significantly to police authority to conclude that they must act because a crime is in progress.

Here is the sequence that the Court followed to reach its result:

First, an anonymous caller telephoned police in Mendocino County, California, on the 911 emergency line to say that a driver had run her off the road.   The caller described the truck and reported its license plate number.

Second, the fact that the tipster had used 911 added to its reliability, because new technology allows police to identify such callers, and go after them for false reports.

Third, the fact that the tipster had described a near-accident was enough to lead police to conclude that the other driver may well have been drunk.

Fourth, the suspicion of drunken driving, with the hazards that that poses for the traveling public, justified police in stopping the suspected driver even though, when actually following that truck, there was no erratic driving.  The fact that there was no erratic driving was not proof that the driver was not drunk.

Fifth, on the suspicion of drunken driving, the officers were permitted, under the Fourth Amendment, to stop the vehicle.  When they stopped it, they smelled marijuana, and they made a search that turned up four large, closed bags of marijuana in the truck.

All of those led ultimately to the conviction of two brothers, Lorenzo Prado Navarette and Jose Prado Navarette, on charges of possessing marijuana illegally.  They pleaded guilty in a plea bargain, and were sentenced to ninety days in jail and to three years on probation.  The conviction was upheld by California state courts.

The Supreme Court upheld the convictions Tuesday, concluding that — taking all of the circumstances together — the Navarette brothers’ Fourth Amendment rights were not violated even though the sequence of events began with a tip from a person about whom the police knew nothing except that it was a woman who reported a near-accident on the road and gave some details about the other vehicle.

The Thomas opinion was supported by Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., and Justices Samuel A. Alito, Jr., Stephen G. Breyer, and Anthony M. Kennedy.

Justice Antonin Scalia, in a dissent joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor, sharply criticized the sequential way in which the majority had built toward its constitutional conclusion, suggesting that each step in the process was weak and that the end result was a Fourth Amendment violation.

The dissenting opinion spoke most harshly of the part of the majority’s analysis that turned the anonymous tip into suspicion of drunken driving.  That, essentially, was all that the police had to go on, Justice Scalia wrote, and it did not support any traffic stop.

“After today’s opinion,” the dissenters concluded, “all of us on the road, and not just drug dealers, are at risk of having our freedom of movement curtailed on suspicion of drunkenness, based upon a phone tip, true or false, of a single instance of careless driving.”

Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston, Opinion analysis: Big new role for anonymous tipsters, SCOTUSblog (Apr. 22, 2014, 9:10 PM),