Supreme Court considers whether anonymous call warrants police stop

 By Kimberly Atkins

The Daily Record Newswire
 
WASHINGTON, DC — The justices of the U.S. Supreme Court used a parade of hypotheticals involving speeding, kidnapping and terrorist threats to try to pinpoint just when information from an anonymous tip can serve as the basis for a police traffic stop.
 
The case of Navarette v. California, No. 12-9490, stems from a call made to a Humboldt County, Calif. dispatcher from someone claiming to have been run off the road by a pickup truck. Soon after, police spotted and stopped a truck that matched the description given by the caller, including the license plate number. They did not witness the car being driven erratically.

During the stop, officers smelled marijuana smoke in the cab and conducted a search. They found marijuana and drug paraphernalia in the bed of the truck.

The driver, Lorenzo Navarette, and his brother Jose Navarette, the passenger, were arrested and charged with transportation and possession of marijuana with intent to sell.

They moved to suppress evidence from the warrantless vehicle search, arguing that the police lacked reasonable suspicion. But the trial court denied the motion, arguing that a stop based on an anonymous tip is permissible as long as police have sufficient evidence to corroborate that the vehicle being stopped is the correct one.

The defendants pleaded guilty and retained the right to appeal, but the California Court of Appeal affirmed the denial of the motion, holding that the caller’s first-hand report of being run off the road was a reasonable basis for the stop. After the California Supreme Court denied the defendants’ petition for review, the Supreme Court granted certiorari.

From traffic violations to terrorist plots

During oral arguments last week, Paul R. Kleven, a civil and criminal appellate attorney from Berkeley, Calif., argued on the defendants’ behalf that the stop was impermissible under the court’s 2000 decision in Florida v. J.L.

In that case, the justices ruled that an anonymous call to police stating that a black man wearing plaid at a bus stop was carrying a gun was not enough to create reasonable suspicion to search the man.

Kleven argued that allowing second-hand anonymous accounts opens the door to arrests and searches based on mistaken or even intentionally false reports of suspicious behavior.

“Officers acting on anonymous tips must corroborate [the] illegal conduct as well as the identifying details,” Kleven said. Corroboration is needed, he said, whether the alleged conduct is “erratic driving, illegal gun possession or any other allegation of misconduct.”

But the justices pressed him on that point, posing increasingly scary hypotheticals including a caller claiming that he or she saw someone kidnap a girl, put her in a trunk and drive away.

When Kleven argued that the call in itself did not crease reasonable suspicion, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy replied: “You get an A for consistency, but I’m not sure about common sense.”

Justice Antonin Scalia asked if a report of a nuclear bomb being driven into downtown Los Angeles would pass muster.

“That may be a situation [where] the court decides the risk is too great,” Kleven replied.

“See? He’s not consistent,” Scalia said to Kennedy.

California Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey M. K. Laurence defended the credibility of calls made by those who witness potentially criminal behavior.

“The public knows what they see when they make these calls,” he said.

That sent the justices searching for hypotheticals on the other end of the seriousness scale.

Scalia asked whether it would be enough to make a call to police that a driver “cut me off too quickly.”

“It really ticks me off,” Scalia said, drawing laughter.

Laurence said that reasonable suspicion can be created by reports of “reckless behavior” like that reported in the instant case.

A decision is expected before the term concludes later this year.

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