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The Oklahoma Legal Group Blog

The Slow Destruction of the Fourth Amendment

Adam Banner - Thursday, May 01, 2014

Among the cases decided by the United States Supreme Court on April 22, 2014, was one criminal case. Their decision in Navarette v. California could have a significant impact on what “reasonable suspicion” means for law enforcement to stop or detain a suspect.

In 2008, Lorenzo Prado Navarette and and Jose Prado Navarette were stopped by the California Highway Patrol (CHP) after an anonymous 9-1-1 call indicated that a vehicle matching the description of the one of which the Navarattes were occupants nearly ran the caller off the road.

Nearly 20 minutes and 21 miles later, a CHP trooper pulled over the Navarette vehicle on suspicion of DUI, even though the trooper had not personally witnessed any activity that indicated that the driver, Lorenzo Prado Navarette, was under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Another CHP trooper also responded, and as the two approached the vehicle, they claimed to smell the odor of marijuana. A search of the Navarette vehicle revealed 30 pounds of marijuana in the bed of the truck.

In their criminal case, attorneys for the brothers moved to suppress the evidence obtained in the traffic stop, citing lack of probable cause for the traffic stop. The motion was denied and the Prado Navarettes were convicted upon pleading guilty to transportation of marijuana. They appealed to the California First District Court of Appeal, citing violation of their Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure.

The appeals court affirmed the lower court’s denial of the motion to suppress evidence, saying that the anonymous tip was sufficient to give reasonable suspicion for the traffic stop. In Navarette v. California, the appellants sought Fourth Amendment protection from the nation’s highest court.

Unfortunately for advocates of the constitution and the rights it bestows, the Supreme Court narrowly ruled in a 5-4 decision that an anonymous tip is credible in creating reasonable suspicion and probable cause for a traffic stop.

The court’s ruling held, “The traffic stop complied with the Fourth Amendment because, under the totality of the circumstances, the officer had reasonable suspicion that the truck’s driver was intoxicated,” and listed the following reasons for the finding: The Fourth Amendment allows “brief investigative stops” when a law enforcement officer has “a particularized and objective basis for suspecting the particular person stopped of . . . criminal activity,” according to United States v. Cortez. The court finds that reasonable suspicion considers the “totality of the circumstances” and depends upon “the content of the information possessed by the police and its degree of reliability.”

Although anonymous tips may not necessarily be considered credible or reliable enough to create reasonable suspicion, they can be with “adequate indicia of reliability.” In this case, the caller claimed to be an eyewitness, had little time to fabricate a story, and provided a detailed description of the vehicle. The court found that “a reasonable officer could conclude that a false tipster would think twice before using the 911 system, which has several technological and regulatory features that safeguard against making false reports with immunity.”

Finally, the court found that the 911 call was reliable enough to create reasonable suspicion of drunk driving. In the majority opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote, “We have firmly rejected the argument that reasonable cause for an investigative stop can only be based on the officer’s personal observation, rather than on information supplied by another person.” In the dissenting opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia said, “Drunken driving is a serious matter, but so is the loss of our freedom to come and go as we please without police interference,” Scalia wrote. “To prevent and detect murder we do not allow searches without probable cause or targeted . . . stops without reasonable suspicion. We should not do so for drunken driving either.”

He noted that, although several of his fellow Justices found the tip to be “reliable,” responding officers knew nothing about the caller or her degree of credibility. He wrote, “The California Highway Patrol in this case knew nothing about the tipster on whose word, and that alone, they seized Lorenzo and Jose Prado Navarette. They did not know her name. They did not know her phone number or address. They did not even know where she called from.”

In the past, an anonymous tip has been insufficient to produce reasonable cause without corroboration. If an anonymous tipster reports that a silver Ford F-150 is driving erratically, that alone would not be enough for reasonable suspicion of a crime. Instead, meaningful corroboration would occur if the tipster reported that a silver Ford F-150 was driving erratically, and upon approaching the suspect vehicle, an officer noticed the truck weaving across lines or violating traffic laws.

The Supreme Court’s ruling throws meaningful corroboration out the window and gives law enforcement excessive latitude in determining “credibility” of an anonymous tip. What does this mean for you? Be careful not to cut anyone off in traffic, drive too slowly in the passing lane, or commit any other annoyance for other drivers. Ruining your day is just a 911 call away.






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