U.S. Supreme Court upholds police search based on anonymous 911 calls

By Clarissa Hawes, Land Line staff writer | 4/28/2014

The U.S. Supreme Court recently upheld a lower court’s ruling in California that police can use anonymous information received from 911 tips to stop and question drivers, even if the officers did not personally witness the incidents.

The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in the majority opinion written by Justice Clarence Thomas that police stops that rely on anonymous tips do not violate the Fourth Amendment.

In the majority opinion, it states that “The Fourth Amendment permits brief investigative stops when an officer has a ‘particularized and objective basis for suspecting the particular person stopped of … criminal activity.’”

The Supreme Court’s opinion in Navarette vs. California is based on an anonymous 911 call by a woman claiming she had been run off the road by two men in a pickup truck in August 2008 in Mendocino County, Calif. The caller also provided a detailed description of the pickup truck and the license plate number.

Less than 20 minutes after the 911 call was received, an officer with the California Highway Patrol spotted the pickup truck. Another officer arrived at the scene around the same time and the two officers “smelled marijuana” as they approached the truck, according to court documents. The CHP’s search of the truck turned up 30 pounds of marijuana.

The Navarette brothers, who were the driver and a passenger in the truck, moved to have the evidence suppressed, arguing the traffic stop violated the Fourth Amendment. But both were found guilty of transporting marijuana and were sentenced to 90 days in jail, plus three years of probation.

The Supreme Court affirmed the California Court of Appeals ruling, stating that the officers had “reasonable suspicion” to stop and search the pickup truck because the caller “reported driving that was sufficiently dangerous to merit an investigative stop without waiting for the officer to observe additional reckless driving himself.”

“These principles apply with full force to investigative stops based on information from anonymous tips,” the majority opinion stated.

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