One Anonymous Tip May Be Enough to Create "Reasonable Suspicion" of Drunk Driving

An anonymous tip may be sufficient probable cause for a police stop.

A woman makes an anonymous call to 9-1-1 claiming you ran her off the road. Is that probable cause for an officer to stop you even if you're driving safely, following all traffic rules, and not providing police with any reason to pull you over?

In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court considered the  case of Lorenzo and Jose Navarette, two brothers who were driving in a pickup truck during the late-afternoon in California.  Just before 4 p.m., police received a 9-1-1 report from an “unidentified reporting party” that a silver Ford F-150, with a license plate matching the Navarette’s plate, had run the caller off the road.

Based solely on the anonymous 9-1-1 call, officers spotted the truck and pulled it over to question the driver. After approaching the vehicle, the officers smelled marijuana and ordered the brothers out of the vehicle. A search of the vehicle resulted in four large bags of marijuana. Lorenzo and Jose were then arrested and charged with possession with intention to sell a controlled substance.

Traditionally, the Supreme Court has required the police to observe some minimum level of specificity to support an anonymous tip. For example, prior to  Navarette v. California, an anonymous tip that “Jon is selling drugs,” probably would not have been enough information for the police to act. The Supreme Court has traditionally referred to this as a “bare-bones tip.”

However, if the tip had been, “Jon is selling drugs, is keeping them in his trunk, and he’s going to sell drugs to Sally today at 4 p.m.,” then the case law would likely support a search if Jon and Sally met near Jon’s vehicle around 4 p.m. that day.

Whether the police acted constitutionally in their search is important because of the “fruits of the poisonous tree” doctrine. If the police illegally stop someone, it doesn’t matter what they find, because the search results of an illegal search are inadmissible in court.

In a 5-4 split decision, the Supreme Court upheld the conviction and decided the Naverette stop was legal for several reasons:

  • The caller reported she was run off the road and described the vehicle and its license plate number.
  • The tip came through 9-1-1 and not through completely anonymous means; the justices indicated that 9-1-1 calls are traceable and fraudulent tips can have consequences for the caller.
  • The timeline of the call in relation to where the police first spotted the vehicle suggested the caller reported the incident soon after she was run off the road, bolstering the credibility of the report.
  • The caller reported a near-accident, which was enough to give rise to the suspicion of drunk driving.

Justice Scalia, on behalf of the four dissenting justices argued that the tip lacked the specificity that has traditionally been required for the police to act and further that the police didn’t know the tipster’s name, phone number, address, or where she was when she called. As the dissent pointed out, everyone on the road -- not just drug dealers -- is at risk of having freedom of movement curtailed based on a phone tip, true or false, of a single instance of careless driving.

Bottom line:  After this decision, drivers accused of DUIs and other moving offenses will have a more difficult time arguing that the officer lacked probably cause if the stop was based on an anonymous tip.

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