The 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 firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. The opinions expressed are those of the authors.