United States Supreme Court Rules Anonymous 911 Call Sufficient For Police To Conduct Traffic Stop

On April 22, 2014, the United States Supreme Court issued landmark decision in the case of Navarette v. California, holding that police are permitted to conduct a traffic stop of a suspected intoxicated motorist based solely on an anonymous tip by a 911 caller. In Navarette, the defendant, Prado Navarette, was stopped by a California Highway Patrol officer because the car he was driving matched the description of a vehicle that a 911 caller had reported as having run her off the road. Upon approaching Navarette’s vehicle, the officer smelled marijuana, and searched the truck’s bed, discovering 30 pounds of marijuana.

Navarette filed a motion to suppress the marijuana, arguing that the traffic stop had violated the Fourth Amendment. The trial court denied the motion, holding that the officer had reasonable suspicion to conduct the traffic stop based on the information provided by the 911 caller. Navarette pleaded guilty to transporting marijuana and was sentenced to 90 days in jail and three years of probation.

On appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, Navarette again argued that the traffic stop had violated his Fourth Amendment rights because the 911 caller’s tip was insufficient to establish reasonable suspicion that Navarette was engaged in criminal activity. The authority of police to conduct traffic stops derives from the United States Supreme Court case Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968), in which the Court held that police may briefly detain a person whom they reasonably suspect is involved in criminal activity.

With Justice Thomas authoring the 5-4 opinion for the majority, the Court voted to affirm Navarette’s conviction, opining that “under the totality of the circumstances, we find the indicia of reliability in this case sufficient to provide the officer with reasonable suspi¬cion that the driver of the reported vehicle had run another vehicle off the road.”

The Court reasoned that the 911 tip was reliable, because 911 calls are recorded and the phone number of the 911 caller is passed on to the dispatcher. The Court further concluded that the 911 caller’s reliability was supported by the fact that law enforcement officers were able to corroborate some of the facts reported by the 911 caller.

Justice Scalia delivered a scathing dissenting opinion, arguing that the majority built its constitutional conclusion on a series of weak findings. Scalia wrote, “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.” Scalia concluded, “The Court’s opinion serves up a freedom-destroying cocktail consisting of two parts patent falsity…”

The criminal defense attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC have extensive experience defending the Constitutional rights of individuals that have been charged with a crime. If you or someone you know has been charged with a crime in Maryland, contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today.