May 2, 2014

U.S. Supreme Court OK's Police Use of Anonymous Tips in Traffic Stops

by The Law Office of Timothy L. Healy

An anonymous 911 caller can provide enough of a basis necessary for police to initiate a traffic stop. That's according to a new ruling handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Our Tacoma criminal defense attorneys know that this gives defendants in a wide variety of cases less means to successfully challenge evidence gathered in the course of a stop. In some instances, that's the kind of evidence that can make or break a case.

Still, the high court indicated that the anonymous call must be considered in light of the totality of the circumstances. That means an experienced lawyer could secure a motion to suppress if it can be shown that the caller's information didn't rise to the level of reasonable suspicion.

Generally, police have been allowed to use anonymous tips as an investigatory tool in many different kinds of cases. But this case expands the degree to which such information can be considered in the course of an investigation.

The case, Navarette v. California resulted when the state highway patrol stopped a truck after an anonymous caller to 911 indicated that a truck fitting that description had aggressively forced her from the road.

As officers approached the vehicle, they noted a strong odor of marijuana. The truck was searched, and 30 pounds of the drug was discovered in the bed of the pickup. The defendants were arrested, but later filed a motion to suppress, arguing their Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure had been violated.

The court denied the motion, and the two later pleaded guilty to felonies. The decision was affirmed by the state appellate court, and now by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The high court reasoned that the Fourth Amendment does allow short investigative stops when a police officer possesses a "particularized and objective basis" for believing that the person stopped has been engaged in criminal activity.

In order for suspicion to be considered reasonable, police have to consider the whole of the circumstances, which includes the content of the information but also the degree to which it is reliable. This is where anonymous tips have been largely discredited. After all, how can reliability be weighed if the source is unclear?

Anonymous tips have been allowed before as the basis for stops, but the caller has to provide a significant amount of detail in order for that information to be rise to the level of reasonable suspicion.

In this case, the majority for the Supreme Court in its 5-4 decision said that the anonymous 911 caller information was reliable for the following reasons:

  • The caller claimed eyewitness basis of knowledge;

  • There was a short time between the time of the reported incident and the actual call, which would indicate that the caller would not have had much time to make up such a story;

  • Certain features of the 911 system would likely give pause to someone providing false information (namely, that such calls are traceable);

  • The top established a reasonable suspicion that the driver was drunk.

The officer in this case had no other reason to stop the truck. He never personally witnessed any reckless driving or moving violations. But in this case, the court found, that wasn't necessary.

This will likely have the most impact on those suspected of drunk driving, but it could ultimately impact those facing a wide range of charges.

If you have been arrested in Tacoma, contact Timothy L. Healy at 888-312-3093 - a 24-hour hotline.

Additional Resources:
Supreme Court Gives Police New Power To Rely On Anonymous Tips, April 22, 2014, By Nina Totenberg & Katie Barlow, National Public Radio

More Blog Entries:
Request Lawyer Before Speaking With Detectives on Sex Crime Charges, April 17, 2014, Tacoma Criminal Defense Lawyer Blog