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California Case: Can Anonymous Tips Be Used to Justify Stops?

Posted by Terry A. Wapner | Jan 22, 2014 | 0 Comments

A California case has made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. It is the case of Navarette v. California and its main issue involves whether police may stop a driver with nothing more than a tip from an anonymous source. The issue is centered around the 4th Amendment. The 4th Amendment provides protection against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Courts have always been concerned about the validity of anonymous tips. Should police be able to search someone's home or stop a vehicle with nothing more than a tip from an anonymous caller? It's simple. No!

This issue hasn't been brought to the Supreme Court in nearly a decade and the current road rage phenomenon is now another consideration. For example, what would stop an irritated driver from calling in a false tip to the police about reckless driving or some other traffic offense, just to get back at the other driver? Not much. Therefore, is it right to trust anonymous callers to the point that officers don't need to corroborate a tip?

Generally, corroboration just means evidence that helps to confirm other evidence. Most of the time, an anonymous tip must be corroborated by additional police evidence before a driver can be stopped or a house can be searched.

However, the Court has eluded in the past that certain situations do not require this corroboration. For instance, when the danger is very great. One example could be an anonymous tip stating that someone has a bomb.

However, in Navarette, there is a question as to whether the tip referenced that type of extreme danger. Here, the incident began with a 911 call in California. The anonymous tipster told the 911 operator that a “silver Ford pickup truck had just run her off the road.” Once police were informed, they located the pickup and began following the driver. The officers did not observe any reckless driving, but still proceeded to stop the vehicle.

After approaching the vehicle, the officer found two men and four bags of marijuana. At trial, the men both pled guilty to the drug charges, but also questioned the legality of the stop. The men argued that they were stopped on nothing more than an anonymous tip of reckless driving. So, the question then is: is reckless driving the type of danger that the Supreme Court was referring to in that prior case?

The state of California is arguing that reckless driving does amount to extreme danger. They claim that reckless driving could mean drunk driving and that could negatively and immediately impact public safety.

It's a creative stance, but I'm not buying it. If the court agrees with this line of thinking, there could be serious consequences. People would basically have a green light to seek revenge on others by calling in anonymous tips of simple “reckless driving.”

Further, police already engage in illegal practices. With this ruling, that could skyrocket. Officers could claim they received an anonymous tip in order to pull over “suspicious looking drivers.”

The Court is expected to decide the case by June. Hopefully, they make the right choice and find that this was an illegal stop.

If you have been arrested for DUI in Fresno or the surrounding areas, give my office a call. I have worked in this area of law for over two decades and I understand that not all stops or arrests are made legally.

About the Author

Terry A. Wapner

Terry A. Wapner confines his practice to the defense of persons accused of driving under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs, and related crimes.


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