Supreme Court Holds that Anonymous Tip Can Be Sufficient Evidence to Allow Investigative Traffic Stop

On April 22nd, 2014, the United States Supreme Court held that an anonymous tip indicating reckless driving can be sufficient evidence to allow an investigative traffic stop while the allegedly reckless person is driving a car.

In Navarette v California, Docket No. 12-9490, the United States Supreme Court addressed an appeal in a criminal case.  From the opinion's syllabus:

"A California Highway Patrol officer stopped the pickup truck occupied by petitioners because it matched the description of a vehicle that a 911 caller had recently reported as having run her off the road. As he and a second officer approached the truck, they smelled marijuana. They searched the truck’s bed, found 30 pounds of marijuana, and arrested petitioners. Petitioners moved to suppress the evidence, arguing that the traffic stop violated the Fourth Amendment. Their motion was denied, and they pleaded guilty to transporting marijuana. The California Court of Appeals affirmed, concluding that the officer had reasonable suspicion to conduct an investigative stop. 

Held: The traffic stop complied with the Fourth Amendment because, under the totality of the circumstances, the officer had reasonable suspicion that the truck’s driver was intoxicated. Pp. 3–11. 

(a) The Fourth Amendment permits brief investigative stops when an officer has [']a particularized and objective basis for suspecting the particular person stopped of . . . criminal activity.['] United States v. Cortez, 449 U.S. 411, 417–418. Reasonable suspicion takes into account [']the totality of the circumstances,['] id., at 417, and depends [']upon both the content of information possessed by police and its degree of reliability,['] Alabama v. White, 496 U.S. 325, 330. An anonymous tip alone seldom demonstrates sufficient reliability, White, 496 U.S., at 329, but may do so under appropriate circumstances, id., at 327. Pp. 3–5. 

(b) The 911 call in this case bore adequate indicia of reliability for the officer to credit the caller’s account. By reporting that she had been run off the road by a specific vehicle, the caller necessarily claimed an eyewitness basis of knowledge. The apparently short time between the reported incident and the 911 call suggests that the caller had little time to fabricate the report. And a reasonable officer could conclude that a false tipster would think twice before using the 911 system, which has several technological and regulatory features that safeguard against making false reports with immunity. Pp. 5–8. 

(c) Not only was the tip here reliable, but it also created reasonable suspicion of drunk driving. Running another car off the road suggests the sort of impairment that characterizes drunk driving. While that conduct might be explained by another cause such as driver distraction, reasonable suspicion “need not rule out the possibility of innocent conduct.” United States v. Arvizu, 534 U.S. 266, 277. Finally, the officer’s failure to observe additional suspicious conduct during the short period that he followed the truck did not dispel the reasonable suspicion of drunk driving, and the officer was not required to surveil the truck for a longer period. Pp. 8–10. "