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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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  2. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  3. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

  4. Diversity is important, but with some limitations. For instance, diversity of experience is a great thing that can be very helpful in certain jobs or roles. Diversity of skin color is never important, ever, under any circumstance. To think that skin color changes one single thing about a person is patently racist and offensive. Likewise, diversity of values is useless. Some values are better than others. In the case of a supreme court justice, I actually think diversity is unimportant. The justices are not to impose their own beliefs on rulings, but need to apply the law to the facts in an objective manner.

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