Supreme Court to Decide if Anonymous Tip is Enough for DUI Stop


The United States Supreme Court has decided to hear a California case that would determine whether law enforcement can stop a car based solely on an anonymous tip that the driver may be driving drunk. Although the case itself does not involve a California DUI, the decision would impact the ability of police to pull over for a California DUI.

In August 2008, a California Highway Patrol dispatcher received a call from a motorist who had been run off the Highway 1 near Fort Bragg by someone driving a pickup truck. The anonymous caller provided the license plate number of the pickup. A short time later, CHP spotted the pickup and pulled it over. As the CHP officers approached, they smelled marijuana and discovered four bags of it in the bed of the pickup.

The occupants of the pickup were identified as Lorenzo and Jose Navarette. The brothers plead guilty to transporting marijuana after they unsuccessfully attempted to challenge the constitutionality of the search. Both were sentenced to 90 days in jail.

The First District Court of Appeal in San Francisco relied on the 2006 California Supreme Court ruling of People v. Wells in upholding the conviction. The Court in that case said that “the grave risks posed by an intoxicated highway driver” justifies a brief investigatory stop. It found that there are certain dangers alleged in anonymous tips that are so great, such as a person carrying a bomb, which would justify a search even without a showing of reliability. The court went on to say that a “drunk driver is not at all unlike a bomb, and a mobile one at that.”

In its 3-0 ruling, the appellate court said, “The report that the (Navarettes’) vehicle had run someone off the road sufficiently demonstrated an ongoing danger to other motorists to justify the stop without direct corroboration of the vehicle’s illegal activity.”

Let’s just hope that when the United States Supreme Court decides the case, the arguments of which will probably be held in January, they’ll consider the fact that the lower court is assuming that the anonymous tipster has personal knowledge of reckless driving. If the United States Supreme Court also upholds the convictions and follows the rationale of the Wells case, police can lawfully pull someone over for a California DUI if anyone makes an “anonymous tip” even if they don’t have personal knowledge of reckless driving.

 

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One Response to Supreme Court to Decide if Anonymous Tip is Enough for DUI Stop

  1. The Supreme Court, and courts in many states, have shown a willingness to change the rules of criminal procedure a bit when drunk driving is involved. The prime example of this is in the Supreme Court’s checkpoints doctrine, which allows checkpoints for drunk driving but not for drug trafficking. The Court in Michigan Department of State Police v. Sitz reasoned that the great hazards of drunk driving justify the slight intrusion into privacy induced by checkpoint stops. But the Court in City of Indianapolis v. Edmond limited that holding to areas of public danger, holding that catching drug traffickers does not protect the public the way stopping drunk drivers does. If this concern for drunk driving continues into the Navarrette case, I expect the Court to once again give police more latitude to stop drunk drivers using anonymous tips than they would otherwise have.

    You can read my article on the topic at 25 Reg. U. L. Rev. 185 (2012) or on SSRN at http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2338531.

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