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Inside the Criminal Case: SCOTUS rules anonymous 911 call reliable

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Inside CC Bell GaerteThe Supreme Court of the United States recently held that an anonymous call to 911 was sufficient to initiate a traffic stop in certain specific circumstances. Navarette v. California, 2014 U.S. Lexis 2930 (2014). The decision set off a minor shockwave in the media with reports that the 5-4 opinion eroded Fourth Amendment protection. A close review of the case could lead one to conclude that Navarette lowers the standard for what makes a tip “reliable.”

In Navarette, Lorenzo and Jose Navarette were cruising down a beautiful California highway minding their own business. Id. at 4. Everything was going great. However, their day began to take a nosedive when Lorenzo, the driver, allegedly ran another vehicle off the roadway. Id. That driver called 911 to report the transgression. Id. Relaying the make, model, color, license plate, location and direction of the Navarettes’ vehicle, police were able to stop the Brothers Navarette approximately 20 miles down the road and approximately 20 minutes later. Id.

After following the Navarettes for five minutes without identifying any additional problematic driving behavior, law enforcement initiated a traffic stop based solely upon the information relayed in the 911 call. Id. at 31. The traffic stop became decidedly worrisome for the Navarettes because, once officers approached the vehicle, they could immediately smell the 30 pounds of marijuana the Navarettes had packed for their day trip. Id. In court, the Navarettes argued that the traffic stop was impermissible because the officers did not have reasonable suspicion of criminal activity to justify the initial detention. Id at 5.

The Supreme Court disagreed, finding that the information provided by the caller was sufficiently reliable. Id. at 19. Justice Clarence Thomas focused on the fact that the caller had specific information about the vehicle including the license plate number. Id. at 9. He also emphasized that the call was made to 911. Id. at 12. Per Justice Thomas, because 911 calls are recorded and can be traced regarding identity and location of callers, the tip had a sufficient quantum of reliability. Id. at 13-14. The majority opinion also cited that the allegation of reckless driving was sufficiently connected with a criminal investigation into drunken driving. Id. at 16. Conceding that this was a “close case,” the majority concluded that the officer’s detention was constitutionally permissible because the caller presented sufficiently reliable information. Id. 19.

Justice Antonin Scalia, in dissent, called Justice Thomas’ opinion “a freedom-destroying cocktail consisting of two parts patent falsity…” Id. at 34. For Justice Scalia, an anonymous 911 call isn’t sufficiently reliable simply because it identified a vehicle and location. Id. Justice Scalia focused on the fact that increased veracity of a 911 call is dependent upon a demonstration that the caller was aware that his or her location, phone number and identity were being revealed. Id. at 27. In this case, there was no showing that the caller knew these things. Id. at 27. Therefore, the dissent argued, without this information, there was no additional reason to believe the caller’s allegations were any more reliable than that of any other phone call. Id.

Moreover, Justice Scalia argued, an anonymous caller’s allegation of a single instance of reckless driving does not necessarily justify a traffic stop. Id. at 34. He rhetorically cited that, in his estimation, 0.1 percent of reckless driving violations are attributable to drunken driving and that his “guesswork” is as reliable as the majority’s connection of the caller’s information in this case with a reasonable suspicion of drunken driving. Id. at 29. In sum, Justice Scalia explained that the majority’s conclusion now permits a “malevolent 911 caller” to allege an individual committed a traffic violation, and the individual will be stopped by police. Id.

The Navarette opinion certainly lowered the state’s burden of demonstrating the reliability of an anonymous tip. As precedent, the opinion surely opens the door wider for officers looking to stop an individual based upon information provided anonymously.

Courtrooms aside, the Navarette decision could be liberating for the spouses of the authors of this article. For example, if our wives happened to be frustrated with us on a particular day and we left our homes in a vehicle, our wives could do the following:

• Ask us where we were headed.

• Wait for us to leave.

• Pick up a cellphone, call 911, allege some form of reckless driving and identify the make, model, color and plate number of our vehicles.

• To make the call reliable, all they would need to do was tell the dispatcher where we were headed.

• They could then hang up the phone, watch some TV and decide whether to answer a collect call.

Under Naverette, the above information would be sufficient for police to pull us over. Whether our detention would create a “freedom-destroying cocktail” is in the eye of the beholder.•

__________

James J. Bell and K. Michael Gaerte are attorneys with Bingham Greenebaum Doll LLP. They assist lawyers and judges with professional liability and legal ethics issues. They also practice in criminal defense and are regular speakers on criminal defense and ethics topics. They can be reached at jbell@bgdlegal.com or mgaerte@bgdlegal.com. The opinions expressed are those of the authors.
 

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  1. A sad end to a prolific gadfly. Indiana has suffered a great loss in the journalistic realm.

  2. Good riddance to this dangerous activist judge

  3. What is the one thing the Hoosier legal status quo hates more than a whistleblower? A lawyer whistleblower taking on the system man to man. That must never be rewarded, must always, always, always be punished, lest the whole rotten tree be felled.

  4. I want to post this to keep this tread alive and hope more of David's former clients might come forward. In my case, this coward of a man represented me from June 2014 for a couple of months before I fired him. I knew something was wrong when he blatantly lied about what he had advised me in my contentious and unfortunate divorce trial. His impact on the proceedings cast a very long shadow and continues to impact me after a lengthy 19 month divorce. I would join a class action suit.

  5. The dispute in LB Indiana regarding lake front property rights is typical of most beach communities along our Great Lakes. Simply put, communication to non owners when visiting the lakefront would be beneficial. The Great Lakes are designated navigational waters (including shorelines). The high-water mark signifies the area one is able to navigate. This means you can walk, run, skip, etc. along the shores. You can't however loiter, camp, sunbath in front of someones property. Informational signs may be helpful to owners and visitors. Our Great Lakes are a treasure that should be enjoyed by all. PS We should all be concerned that the Long Beach, Indiana community is on septic systems.

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