Navarette v. California is a “freedom-destroying cocktail” – Justice Scalia

 In Criminal, Supreme Court Decisions, Versus Texas Criminal Law Blog

Yesterday, the Supreme Court upheld the stop of an individual based on an anonymous 911 call. The majority opinion, comprising of Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Anthony Kennedy and Chief Justice John Roberts, ruled that an anonymous 911 tip reporting a single instance of reckless driving was sufficient to establish reasonable suspicion that the driver of the vehicle was intoxicated.

In Navarette v. California, an anonymous 911 caller reported that a Silver Ford F150 ran the caller off the road, and provided the truck’s license plates and location. Prado Navarette, 12-9490, 2014 WL 1577513 (U.S. Apr. 22, 2014). Eighteen minutes after the vehicle was reported last seen, officers saw the vehicle nineteen miles down the same road and stopped it based on nothing other than the 911 call. While the driver of the vehicle was not intoxicated, a search of the vehicle revealed thirty pounds of marijuana.

MAJORITY OPINION: A 911 CALLER MAKING A CONTEMPORANEOUS EYE-WITNESS REPORT IS A SUFFICIENT FOR A STOP

The majority held that the specific details of the vehicle (color, make, model and license plate number) coupled with knowledge of the vehicle’s location could have only been relayed by an eye witness. As a result, the Court found the basis of the knowledge – eyewitness testimony – lent “significant support to the tip’s reliability.” The Court also found the details regarding time and location suggested the 911 call was a “contemporaneous report” and such reports have “long been treated as especially reliable.” A third indicator for reliability mentioned by the Court was that the caller dialed 911, a system which records identifying information about the caller.  Such identifying information could later be used to prosecute a caller for making a false report, another incentive for the caller to provide accurate information. Considering each indicator of reliability, the Court determined a police officer could rely upon the 911 caller’s report.  As such, the Court found the behavior reported by the 911 caller, viewed from the standpoint of an objectively reasonable police officer, amounted to reasonable suspicion for the offense of driving while intoxicated.

DISSENT: GENERALLY KNOWN DETAILS ARE NOT SUFFICIENT CORROBORATION OF AN ANONYMOUS TIP TO RISE TO THE LEVEL OF REASONABLE SUSPICION

Justice Scalia starts off with a warning: “Be not deceived.” He went on to vehemently disagree with the majority’s claim that their ruling conformed with from generally accepted Fourth Amendment jurisprudence.

Justice Scalia, joined by Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor and Kagan, rejected the notion that an anonymous 911 tip reporting a vehicle’s location and a “single instance of possibly careless or reckless driving” was sufficient to justify a stop of a vehicle. Justice Scalia pointed out at the time of the stop law enforcement did not have the 911 caller’s name, phone number, address, or the location from where the call was placed. Additionally, the caller only provided facts that would have been known by any other vehicle on the roadway at the time. None of those generally known facts, such as the location, make, model or color of the vehicle, added any reliability to the 911 caller’s statement. Finally, the 911 caller did not even hint that the driver was intoxicated. The caller simply reported the suspect vehicle ran her off the roadway, which could have been for any number of innocent reasons unrelated to criminal activity. Justice Scalia called the Court’s opinion “a freedom destroying cocktail” made up of two parts patent falsity: First, a reliance on 911 calls that only provide basic generally-known information such as make, model, and location of a vehicle; Second, the belief that a single instance of careless of reckless driving could amount to reasonable suspicion of driving while intoxicated.

Image Courtesy of United States Mission under Creative Commons Licensing

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