US Supreme Court rules on anonymous tip and traffic stop

Many criminal cases involve a so-called “routine” traffic stop. Hopefully, people in Atlanta understand that law enforcement does not have to have a warrant in hand to pull over a vehicle. But, the does not mean that police may conduct a traffic stop based upon a hunch or mere whim in the hopes of finding some incriminating evidence.

In general, an officer must have a legal basis to conduct an investigatory stop. We are generally free to go about our day-to-day business without unreasonable government intrusions. Unfortunately, a traffic stop may lead to more than an investigation of some mere traffic violation.

The United States Supreme Court handed down a ruling Tuesday finding a traffic stop justified, based in large part upon an anonymous 911 tip. The high court split 5 to 4 in justifying the stop, with a biting dissent arguing that the majority opinion “serves up a freedom-destroying cocktail.” The majority opinion says that law enforcement was justified in making the traffic stop based upon a reasonable suspicion that the driver may have been under the influence.

The case involved an anonymous tip from a woman who told dispatchers that a pickup truck had run her off the road. She apparently described the vehicle and its location, and provided the license plate number. An officer spotted a pickup matching the description and after following for several minutes, the officer conducted a traffic stop to investigate the driver for drunk driving. Police smelled pot and found marijuana in the pickup.

The majority of the high court acknowledges that an anonymous tip, standing alone, generally is not sufficient to legally justify a traffic stop. However, five justices agree that in the specific case, the stop was constitutionally sound.

The court reasoned that the woman described the vehicle, its location and said that the pickup driver tried to run her off the road. The majority says that in the totality of the circumstances, officers were justified in investigating a possible DUI. The case turned into a drug crime investigation during the stop.

Justice Antonin Scalia did not agree with the majority. He wrote a dissent, joined by three others, in arguing that the stop was unlawful. He notes that law enforcement followed the pickup truck for five minutes without observing any traffic violation.

He says that the majority opinion threatens freedom, asserting that after Tuesday’s ruling, “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.”

Source: United States Supreme Court, “Naverette v. California, No. 12-9490,” April 22, 2014