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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. I grew up on a farm and live in the county and it's interesting that the big industrial farmers like Jeff Shoaf don't live next to their industrial operations...

  2. So that none are misinformed by my posting wihtout a non de plume here, please allow me to state that I am NOT an Indiana licensed attorney, although I am an Indiana resident approved to practice law and represent clients in Indiana's fed court of Nth Dist and before the 7th circuit. I remain licensed in KS, since 1996, no discipline. This must be clarified since the IN court records will reveal that I did sit for and pass the Indiana bar last February. Yet be not confused by the fact that I was so allowed to be tested .... I am not, to be clear in the service of my duty to be absolutely candid about this, I AM NOT a member of the Indiana bar, and might never be so licensed given my unrepented from errors of thought documented in this opinion, at fn2, which likely supports Mr Smith's initial post in this thread: http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-7th-circuit/1592921.html

  3. When I served the State of Kansas as Deputy AG over Consumer Protection & Antitrust for four years, supervising 20 special agents and assistant attorneys general (back before the IBLE denied me the right to practice law in Indiana for not having the right stuff and pretty much crushed my legal career) we had a saying around the office: Resist the lure of the ring!!! It was a take off on Tolkiem, the idea that absolute power (I signed investigative subpoenas as a judge would in many other contexts, no need to show probable cause)could corrupt absolutely. We feared that we would overreach constitutional limits if not reminded, over and over, to be mindful to not do so. Our approach in so challenging one another was Madisonian, as the following quotes from the Father of our Constitution reveal: The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse. We are right to take alarm at the first experiment upon our liberties. I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations. Liberty may be endangered by the abuse of liberty, but also by the abuse of power. All men having power ought to be mistrusted. -- James Madison, Federalist Papers and other sources: http://www.constitution.org/jm/jm_quotes.htm RESIST THE LURE OF THE RING ALL YE WITH POLITICAL OR JUDICIAL POWER!

  4. My dear Mr Smith, I respect your opinions and much enjoy your posts here. We do differ on our view of the benefits and viability of the American Experiment in Ordered Liberty. While I do agree that it could be better, and that your points in criticism are well taken, Utopia does indeed mean nowhere. I think Madison, Jefferson, Adams and company got it about as good as it gets in a fallen post-Enlightenment social order. That said, a constitution only protects the citizens if it is followed. We currently have a bevy of public officials and judicial agents who believe that their subjectivism, their personal ideology, their elitist fears and concerns and cause celebs trump the constitutions of our forefathers. This is most troubling. More to follow in the next post on that subject.

  5. Yep I am not Bryan Brown. Bryan you appear to be a bigger believer in the Constitution than I am. Were I still a big believer then I might be using my real name like you. Personally, I am no longer a fan of secularism. I favor the confessional state. In religious mattes, it seems to me that social diversity is chaos and conflict, while uniformity is order and peace.... secularism has been imposed by America on other nations now by force and that has not exactly worked out very well.... I think the American historical experiment with disestablishmentarianism is withering on the vine before our eyes..... Since I do not know if that is OK for an officially licensed lawyer to say, I keep the nom de plume.

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