Supreme Court Rules that Anonymous Tip Provides Reasonable Suspicion of Impaired Driving

The Supreme Court just decided a case that significantly changes North Carolina law regarding whether a traffic stop can be made based on an anonymous 911 call alleging bad driving. The case is Navarette v. California, 572 U.S. __ (2014). The full opinion is here. This post summarizes the ruling and considers its implications for North Carolina.

Facts. A California woman called 911 and reported that a silver Ford pickup had run her off the road. She gave the vehicle’s plate number and stated that the vehicle was traveling south on a particular highway. Shortly thereafter, a highway patrol officer located the truck on the named highway and pulled it over. As the officer approached the truck, he smelled marijuana. He searched the truck, found 30 pounds of marijuana in the bed, and arrested the truck’s occupants.

Lower court proceedings. The occupants were charged with drug offenses. They moved to suppress the marijuana, contending that the initial stop was not supported by reasonable suspicion. It’s not completely clear whether the 911 caller gave her name, so the trial court treated the report as an anonymous tip, but ruled that it was reliable enough to provide reasonable suspicion. The defendants pled guilty and appealed the suppression ruling. California’s appellate courts affirmed. The Supreme Court agreed to review the case.

Majority opinion. The Court affirmed, dividing 5-4. Justice Thomas wrote the majority opinion. He stated that anonymous tips alone seldom provide reasonable suspicion, but that “under appropriate circumstances,” they may do so. Why did this tip pass muster? First, the Court concluded that the tip was reliable, for the following reasons:

  • The caller provided her basis of knowledge, i.e., explained how she came to know about the dangerous driving: she “necessarily claimed eyewitness knowledge” when she stated that the truck ran her off the road.
  • The call was contemporaneous with the dangerous driving, which made the report “especially reliable” and unlikely to be fabricated.
  • The report came via the 911 system, which “has some features [like recording and caller ID] that allow for identifying and tracing callers, and thus provide some safeguards against making false reports with immunity.”

Having concluded that the tip was likely accurate, the Court then ruled that it provided reasonable suspicion that the driver of the pickup was impaired. Justice Thomas wrote that running another vehicle off the road “suggests lane­positioning problems, decreased vigilance, impaired judgment, or some combination of those recognized drunk driving cues.”

Dissent. Justice Scalia wrote the dissent, characterizing the majority opinion as a “freedom-destroying cocktail” of errors. He first argued that the tip was not reliable, and could have been fabricated or embellished, given that it was anonymous and that the caller may well have been unaware of the call-tracing features of the 911 system. Then he contended that even if the tip was reliable, it couldn’t support reasonable suspicion because there are many explanations other than impaired driving for one vehicle running another off the road: “The truck might have swerved to avoid an animal, a pothole, or a jaywalking pedestrian.” Further, he notes that the officers “followed the truck for five minutes” before stopping it and saw no signs of impairment. In his view, this “affirmatively undermined” whatever reasonable suspicion the tip offered.

Comparison to prior law. Our appellate courts have been quite skeptical of anonymous tips. For example, in the almost indistinguishable case of State v. Blankenship, __ N.C. App. __, 748 S.E.2d 616 (2013), a taxi driver placed an anonymous call to 911, reporting that a specific red Ford Mustang was “driving erratically [and] running over traffic cones.” The court of appeals found no reasonable suspicion for the subsequent stop of the Mustang, because the tip was anonymous, and there was no corroboration beyond the fact that the Mustang was, in fact, traveling in the direction reported by the caller. See also State v. Peele, 196 N.C. App. 668 (2009) (anonymous tip concerning possible impaired driving did not provide reasonable suspicion, even with officer’s observation of one incident of weaving). These rulings have been heavily influenced by Florida v. J.L., 529 U.S. 266 (2000) (ruling that an anonymous tip stating that a young black man in a plaid shirt at a specific bus stop was carrying a gun did not provide reasonable suspicion for a stop and frisk as it contained no predictive information). Navarette does not overrule J.L., but it represents a break from the approach our courts have taken.

Reactions and comments. It seems to me that the majority has the upper hand as to the probable accuracy of the tip. Sure, it’s possible that a 911 call like the one in this case could be a fabrication by a malevolent caller, designed to inconvenience an innocent motorist by having them stopped by police. But it’s likely that this sort of report will be made in good faith. As to whether such a tip provides reasonable suspicion of impaired driving, however, the dissent makes a powerful case, especially given the five-minute observation of faultless driving.

Whether or not the decision is right, the majority opinion leaves quite a bit to be desired, because it provides so little guidance in sifting sufficiently reliable tips from inadequate ones. How indispensable is the contemporaneity of the report? How contemporaneous is contemporaneous? How significant is the fact that the call was placed to 911? What if it was placed to a non-emergency number that also was subject to caller ID? What if the call concerned a completed offense instead of an ongoing one? (The Court expressly dodges the last question in footnote 2.) Rather than clarifying the law, the Court’s opinion muddies it, making it more difficult for officers and courts to apply.

Professor Orin Kerr has a more sanguine view of the opinion here at the Volokh Conspiracy.

11 thoughts on “Supreme Court Rules that Anonymous Tip Provides Reasonable Suspicion of Impaired Driving”

  1. I do not believe that the Supreme Court’s decision “significantly changes North Carolina law regarding whether a traffic stop can be made based on an anonymous 911 call alleging bad driving.” As you point out, State v. Blankenship, __ N.C. App. __, 748 S.E.2d 616 (2013) is the law in North Carolina.
    The Supreme Court only decided the minimum protection, and our courts are free to give increased protections to its citizens those traveling through.
    There is little doubt, given yesterday’s ruling, that this issue will be tested again in this state. Hopefully our court will continue to reach the right conclusion in matters such as these and simply adopt Scalia’s reasoning (from the dissent).

    • Hi, I am a criminal defense attorney in North Carolina, and was curious as to your opinion on these particular facts. Anonymous caller calls the police and they come out and speak with her at a grill 57. She claims she saw a man and a particular truck, provided the description of the man and the truck, and claimed he appear to be intoxicated When she saw him enter the grill 57. She provided officers with a license plate number. They ran the plates and realized the car is registered to a business and they went to that business and saw the truck and man that was described by the anonymous person. They asked who was driving the truck and the man said it was his truck. They asked him had he been drinking earlier and he admitted to drinking. They then made him complete a series of field sobriety tests and arrested him and later charged him with a DWI. His BAC was .10. So, this was a situation where the police never in fact witnessed any driving at all. I am curious as to your opinion on these facts, based on the current case law. Thanks!

  2. I agree the court did nothing to clarify this situation. I think the NC courts will still examin the facts surrounding an anonymous tip for signs of reliability…but maybe more inclined to find any little thing as justification for a stop.

  3. I concur with Justice Scalia’s viewpoint. We must be careful here with fourth amendment abuse; that any person may call in on a strange driving issue, in which they think a crime is being committed. However, by the time law enforcement arrives, no probable cause was viewed by law enforcement, therefore they have no grounds on which to stop and search the vehicle. I too think the court hasn’t clearly stated the final outcome of this situation. They may have set a precedent now that will allow law enforcement to stop and search a vehicle without a warrant or probable cause.

  4. While this is certainly a ruling that will be useful to officers, I am worried that it will be abused. Sure, the call was likely reliable. However, the driving observations that yielded no signs of impairment should cancel out the call.

    I speak both from an officer standpoint and a civilian. If we could count on all officers to treat others’ freedom as they would have their own treated, then this would be moot.

  5. Will this really affect State v Blankenship, though? Can’t NC impose greater limits on officers and have higher reasonable suspicion standards than the US Constitution if it chooses to do so?

  6. This is very interesting. I have been a Police Officer for about five years and I was always told that anonymous 911 tips are not enough for a stop. It also makes me think about drug work, which is what I do. For some serious drug cases, the reliability of a CI (Confidential Informant) comes into play when building a case and making an arrest because it can make or break your case. If the CI has not been reliable in the past, then there is no basis for you case and the whole thing can be dismissed in court. However, if the CI has been proven to be reliable by the CI’s information leading to arrests that eventually lead to convictions, then the bad guy goes to jail.

    My point is that the reliability factor of the CI and the anonymous caller can (essentially) be one in the same. Next, how can the reliability of the anonymous caller even be verified if we had no idea who they are?

    Yes, as a Police Officer I like that this case law paved the way for an anonymous person’s information be enough Reasonable Suspicion to stop a car. However, I can’t help but think that this can be overturned in the courts because there is no way to prove the reliability of the anonymous caller. There have been so many times that my department has received an anonymous 911 call from someone that turned out to be false. It usually stems from a woman that is mad at the father of her child, husband, boyfriend, ex-boyfriend or whoever, and she is just trying to get him arrested for any reason. I would hate for a Law Enforcement Officer to make a DWI arrest that is based on an anonymous tip and everything gets dismissed in court.

    • Mike B. You stated that there had been countless times when your dept. had been duped into a false arrest or what have you due to the unreliabilty of anonoymous tips you had received , and yet you support its application due to its ability to sometimes uncover criminal activity. Im sorry you feel that way , but officers involved in narcotics are the most often to feel this way due to the impossiabilty of success in the task they are given. Perhaps you should reflect on the facts that so many are finally beginning to see. The drug war can never be won and if it could be won , at what cost? The lives and liberties of the very Americans you are sworn to protect. Finally this year the UN agency in charge of drug policy as well as over a dozen former presidents and prime ministers from Europe and the Americas agreed.

  7. Great Post, could of used it a few months ago if the court ruled faster. I am glad it is now resolved for future cases.

  8. Although the 911 system does provide for some form of documentation of who the caller is. The Government employees several so called tip lines where people can make outragious claims causing the police to show up to search (Investigate) without probable cause. The Dept of Agriculture has a tip line for suspected animal abuse, where animal rights terrorist routinely make false claims based on some imaginary act or condition. The claims are anoumonous placing the burden on the individual to prove themselves innocent from any crime, putting our entire system in a backwards prosecution environment, assuming a person is guilty without fact, of first hand knowledge or observation as determined by an officer of the court. Property rights have been violated, Rights of privacy of ones property and papers is tampled on by the Govt. and the accused never has an opportuinity to face his or her accuser. This is terror and tyranny in the first degree.

  9. In every case where a cop claims that a 9-11 call led to a stop, the actual recording of the call to the 9-11 operator must be provided so that cops will not simply lie about having a reason. Cops having no Rs for a stop will likely say that someone called in and reported the driver was ( fill in the blank) and so the stop was justified. Given that cops lie constantly without hesittaion, and are perjurers of the highest order in so many cases, verification of an actual call must be available. Sadly, cops cannot be trusted in this day and age so proof of any element must be there for defense attorneys to peruse.


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