New US Supreme Court case re: anoynmous tipsters….Not good

Last week in Navarette v. California the United States Supreme Court upheld a drug conviction stemming from a California arrest. Now you’re probably thinking no big deal, huh? One less drug dealer is off the streets. Well in my opinion as a Defense Attorney and in particular DUI Attorney I am not a fan of his ruling and let me tell you why. It seems lately more and more of our 4th amendment rights are being eroded in favor of granting the police more authority to stop and detain drivers without a sufficient basis to do so.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m all for making the streets safer for us. Just because I’m a Defense Attorney doesn’t mean that I think every person who gets stopped by the police is innocent and the stop was without justification. Obviously law enforcement has an important role in our society and I understand that and respect that. However when you read this Navarette case closely it should trouble anyone who drives a vehicle on our roadways. Here is a rundown of how the Court reached their decision.

An anonymous caller in CA called 911 to report another vehicle had run her off the road. The caller gave the license plate number and a vehicle description, that was it. The police responded and eventually found the vehicle. The police followed the vehicle for approximately 5 minutes and did not observe any bad driving or anything that would rise to the level of a traffic infraction. Apparently 5 minutes was their limit so they decided to pull the vehicle over. Upon contact they smelled the odor of marijuana, conducted a search and low and behold it turned up 30 pounds of pot. It happened that quickly.

Now anybody that knows anything about the law when it comes to anonymous tipsters and police conducting traffic stops knows that the police first must determine whether the tip was reliable and secondly they must corroborate what the caller is saying prior to stopping a vehicle. This is important because if this test is not in place then there is nothing preventing someone from calling 911 and falsely reporting a vehicle.

In reaching their decision, Justice Thomas writing for the majority made some interesting points. First he said because the tipster called 911 that added to her reliability because the call can be traced and recorded. Second because the tipster described a near accident that was enough to conclude the driver was drunk. Third because drunk driving is an epidemic in our Country the speculation that this situation may have involved a drunk driver was enough to stop a vehicle under the 4th amendment even though the police didn’t observe or corroborate what the tipster said.

The saddening theme throughout the opinion was how it all came back to drunk driving. Had the police saw the vehicle swerving or driving recklessly then yeah there was enough to stop. But when there was nothing to support the stop other than the tipster and this notion that the driver was drunk because he was almost involved in an accident is troubling. That’s just my opinion. Was the end result good? I guess there is one less drug dealer, although it was pot so whatever. But the actual reasoning and the authority now granted to law enforcement should trouble anybody who drives a vehicle.

The dissenting opinion said it best “After today’s opinion 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.”

About the author: Matthew Leyba is a DUI Lawyer in Seattle, WA. He is rated as a perfect 10 out of 10 by, a lawyer rating service. Additionally he has been repeatedly named a Rising Star in the area of DUI Defense by the Seattle Met Magazine, an honor less than 2.5% of all Washington State Lawyers receive.