A U.S. Supreme Court opinion handed down last week is giving significant new weight to people who anonymously call in tips to police. In Navarette v. California, the Court upheld a marijuana conviction that hinged on the issue of whether an anonymous tip gave enough cause to pull a driver over for drunk driving.

To pull a driver over for DUI, police must have reasonable suspicion that the driver is drunk. This standard is less than probable cause, the standard necessary for an arrest or search warrant. It does require clear facts from a sufficiently reliable source, from which an officer can infer suspicion that the suspect committed a crime. For drunk driving, that could include erratic driving, driving too fast or traffic violations, such as rolling through a stop sign.

In the Navarette case, police received an anonymous tip that a driver had almost driven the tipster off the road. The caller gave a description of the vehicle and its license plate number. Believing this type of driving indicated the driver was intoxicated, police located the truck and followed it for five minutes. Despite witnessing no signs of drunk driving, officers pulled the truck over.

Police smelled marijuana, searched the truck and found 30 pounds of cannabis. The driver and petitioner were convicted on drug charges, and appealed on the issue of whether the stop was legal.

In the 5-4 opinion by Justice Clarence Thomas, the Court ruled that it was. Thomas wrote that the anonymous tip was sufficiently reliable because there was too little time between the alleged incident and the call to fabricate a story and because the tipster called 911, which meant she knew that the call could be traced and she could face charges for a false report if the call was untrue.

Reckless driving gave police sufficient reasonable suspicion to pull the driver over on suspicion of driving under the influence, so the stop was legal, Thomas wrote.

In his dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia called the majority opinion a “freedom-destroying cocktail,” with both the proposition that the tip was reliable and the proposition that the information in the tip was sufficient reasonable suspicion for drunk driving being false.

Police had no reason to believe the information in the tip, that the truck had nearly driven the tipster off the road, was even true, Scalia wrote. Furthermore, the information itself did not indicate the driver was drunk, and following the truck for five minutes with no signs of intoxicated driving should have indicated that he was not, Scalia said.

The majority ruling is a troubling development on the issue of reasonable suspicion and the ability of police to stop a person. Previously, the court had allowed an anonymous tip to suffice for reasonable suspicion when the caller had predicted an exact pattern of behavior. In Alabama v. White, in 1990, an anonymous tip said that a woman would drive a brown station wagon with a broken tail light from an apartment building to a motel, and that she would have cocaine. The fact that the tipster was knowledgeable enough to accurately predict behavior gave the tip sufficient reliability.

The Navarette case expands the reliability granted to anonymous tipsters. It does not overrule Florida v. J.L., a 2000 case in which the tip simply stated that a young black man in a plaid shirt at a bus stop had a gun. In that case, the tip was not sufficiently reliable. However, the Navarette case does appear to dramatically narrow the grounds by which a tip should be deemed unreliable, with the mere facts that the caller dialed 911 and had a short amount of time to fabricate a story being sufficient.

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