Washington, D.C., April 24, 2014- On Tuesday the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling that allows police to stop and search a driver based exclusively on an anonymous tip.
In a 5-4 split decision, the court ruled that the reliance on an anonymous call is reasonable due to the fact that “a 911 call has some features that allow for identifying and tracking callers.” The justices atypically didn’t split along standard ideological lines as two of the most conservative justices, Justice Clarence Thomas and Justice Antonin Scalia, respectively wrote the majority opinion and dissent.
The Supreme Court has previously given the police the authority to act on anonymous tips, but requires sufficient detail so that law enforcement has a basis of reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.
Justice Scalia decried this ruling as “A freedom-destroying cocktail.”
In the case, Prado Navarette v. California, an anonymous tip of reckless driving was called in to 911. Officers responded but didn’t see any evidence of the alleged reckless driving, which was interpreted as implying drunken driving, after following the truck for a number of miles. The subsequent stop and search resulted in officers finding marijuana.
Justice Thomas claimed in the majority opinion that the 911 tip, that a pickup truck ran the caller off the road, was reliable enough for a traffic stop to be allowed without violating the constitutional rights of the driver.
In Justice Scalia’s scathing dissent he asserts:
“The Court’s opinion serves up a freedom-destroying cocktail consisting of two parts patent falsity: (1) that anonymous 911 reports of traffic violations are reliable so long as they correctly identify a car and its location, and (2) that a single instance of careless or reckless driving necessarily supports a reasonable suspicion of drunkenness.”
He goes on to state that:
“Law enforcement agencies follow closely our judgments on matters such as this, and they will identify at once our new rule: So long as the caller identifies where the car is, anonymous claims of a single instance of possibly careless or reckless driving, called in to 911, will support a traffic stop. This is not my concept, and I am sure would not be the Framers’, of a people secure from unreasonable searches and seizures.”
Justice Scalia was joined in his dissent by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Justice Elana Kagan, and Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
Here are a few of the other key points from the dissent:
“Drunken driving is a serious matter, but so is the loss of our freedom to come and go as we please without police interference. To prevent and detect murder we do not allow searches without probable cause or targeted Terry stops without reasonable suspicion. We should not do so for drunken driving either. After today’s opinion all of us on the road, and not just drug dealers, are at risk of having our freedom of movement curtailed on suspicion of drunkenness, based upon a phone tip, true or false, of a single instance of careless driving.”
“All the malevolent 911 caller need do is assert a traffic violation, and the targeted car will be stopped, forcibly if necessary, by the police. If the driver turns out not to be drunk (which will almost always be the case), the caller need fear no consequences even if 911 knows his identity.”
The implications of this ruling will most likely be far reaching. With the current ruling in effect, someone with a vendetta can simply make an anonymous call to 911 and that will be sufficient to pull a person over and search. This ruling is a serious blow to liberty and what was left of the 4th Amendment.