Presumed drunk until proven sober: the dangers and implications of anonymous tips following Navarette v. California.

AuthorSommers, Christopher D.

In Navarette v. California, the Supreme Court of the United States held that an officer who receives an anonymous tip of reckless driving does not have to corroborate erratic or suspicious driving to initiate a traffic stop. The majority reasoned that the contemporaneity of the report and the event, as well as the caller's use of the 911 emergency system, supported the anonymous tip's reliability. The Court also held that an allegation of a single instance of reckless driving from an unknown, unaccountable informant supported reasonable suspicion of drunk driving. In so ruling, the majority disregarded the inherent Fourth Amendment problems associated with anonymous informants, the factors that determine an informant's credibility, and the implications the decision will have on the individual's privacy interests. The dissenting opinion correctly pointed out that there was no reason to believe the anonymous informant's allegation and that nothing in the tip could have supported reasonable suspicion of drunk driving. The Court's holding has made it much easier for anyone who wants a vehicle pulled over to succeed in doing so.


    It is a Friday night, you are at a bar with your friends, and you have decided to be the designated driver. (1) As your group leaves, another patron of the bar writes down your vehicle's model, license plate number, and the direction you are headed. (2) What if this patron calls 911 and, without revealing his identity, falsely reports that your vehicle has just run him off the road? (3) Imagine then, that a law enforcement officer responds to the false report, locates your vehicle, and pulls you over without observing any traffic violations. (4)

    What if, rather than another bar patron, it is an off-duty law enforcement officer that anonymously reports reckless driving? (5) Perhaps he sees you and your friends walking out of the bar and simply assumes you are intoxicated. (6) For unknown and vindictive reasons, perhaps on just a hunch, this officer calls in a false, anonymous tip in order to have you pulled over to see if you are committing a crime. (7) Should the responding officer be permitted to pull over your vehicle based only on the anonymous tip? (8) Would the anonymous tip that reported a single instance of reckless driving be viewed by the courts as sufficiently reliable? (9) Prior to 2014, lower courts were divided as to whether law enforcement must personally observe a traffic violation after receiving an anonymous tip of drunk or erratic driving. (10)

    The Supreme Court of the United States, in Navarette v. California, held that an anonymous tip reporting a vehicle description and a single instance of reckless driving was sufficiently reliable to create reasonable suspicion of drunk driving. (11) Thus, both scenarios above would be upheld as long as the tipster provided law enforcement with the vehicle's model, license plate number, direction, and an alleged eyewitness observation of reckless driving. (12) Both scenarios involve government intrusion into your private life based solely on information from an unaccountable, unidentified informant. (13) The holding in Navarette has made it easier for civilians or law enforcement to set in motion a traffic stop via a false tip, and has created a bright line rule in an area of the law that requires a case-by-case analysis; a rule that weakens an individual's Fourth Amendment rights and increases the potential for fabricated tips and police abuse. (14)

    This casenote first examines the factual and procedural history of Navarette. (15) Second, this casenote analyzes the historical background of the Supreme Court's jurisprudence on informants' tips, as well as the approaches lower courts have taken on anonymous tips alleging drunk or erratic driving. (16) Third, this casenote addresses how the majority's decision departed from precedent by improperly distinguishing the type of crime alleged and used a faulty evidentiary analysis to support the tip's veracity. (17) Fourth, this casenote addresses why the majority should not have concluded a tip alleging reckless driving supplies suspicion of drunk driving, but should instead require corroboration of suspicious driving. (18) Finally, this casenote discusses the potential abuses that may follow from the majority's holding and suggests how anonymous tips reporting drunk or reckless driving should be viewed under the totality of the circumstances. (19)



      On August 23, 2008, Mendocino County dispatcher Matia Moore, of the California Highway Patrol, received a call regarding a 911 report on an internal dispatch line from Humboldt County that reported a reckless driver. Moore generated a computer-aided dispatch log containing information that a Ford F150 truck had run someone off the roadway on Highway 1 at mile marker eighty-eight approximately five minutes earlier. (21) This information was routed to dispatcher Sharon Odbert and stated: "Showing southbound on Highway 1 at mile marker eighty-eight. Silver Ford 150 pickup. Plate of 8-David-949925. Ran the reporting party off the roadway and was last seen approximately five [minutes] ago." (22) Odbert then broadcasted the report of a reckless driver over the police radio at 3:47 p.m. (23)

      Sergeant Francis and Officer Williams responded to the dispatch. (24) At 4:00 p.m., Francis spotted the truck near mile marker sixty-nine heading south and began following it. (25) Three miles later, Williams also spotted the truck and began following it. (26) After trailing the truck for five minutes, and without observing any traffic violations, Francis initiated a stop of the vehicle with Williams arriving shortly thereafter. (27) Lorenzo Navarette, the driver, and Jose Navarette, the passenger, were the only individuals in the vehicle. The officers noticed the smell of unburnt marijuana coming from the truck and ordered the occupants to exit the vehicle. (29) A subsequent search of the vehicle revealed thirty pounds of marijuana. (30)


      Both defendants were charged with transportation of marijuana and possession of marijuana for sale. (31) They filed a motion to suppress the evidence gathered from the search and seizure, arguing that the officers did not have reasonable suspicion to initiate the stop without observing erratic driving. (32) Neither the dispatchers nor the 911 caller were present at the suppression hearing, and the 911 recording was no longer available. (33) The trial court, therefore, treated the call as an anonymous tip. (34) The trial court denied the motion, relying on binding California precedent in People v. Wells? (35) The judge reasoned that the report of reckless driving and the corroboration of innocent details were similar to the facts in Wells-, thus, the tip provided reasonable suspicion for the stop. (36) The defendants subsequently pled guilty to transporting marijuana and were sentenced to ninety days in jail and three years of probation. (37)

      The Navarettes appealed their conviction to the California Court of Appeals, challenging the denial of the suppression motion. (38) The appellate court affirmed the conviction under the Wells standard. (39) It held that the contents of the tip supported an inference that the tip came from the victim. (40) The officers' immediate corroboration of the innocent details made the tip sufficiently reliable to support reasonable suspicion of drunk driving. (41) The appellate court also rejected the Navarettes' arguments that the tip was too vague in its description of the alleged erratic driving and that any suspicion was dispelled when the officers followed the truck for five minutes. (42) The California Supreme Court denied further review. (43)

      The defendants petitioned the Supreme Court of the United States to determine whether an officer is required to corroborate dangerous driving from an anonymous tip; and whether an anonymous tip that reports a vehicle was run off the road provided reasonable suspicion when the officer did not observe erratic driving after following the vehicle (44) The Court granted certiorari, but limited the issue to whether an officer must personally observe dangerous driving before the anonymous tip will give reasonable suspicion to support a traffic stop. (45)


      1. The Majority Opinion

        In a 5-4 decision, the Court affirmed the defendants' convictions and held that the stop complied with the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures (46) The majority, in an opinion written by Justice Thomas, found that an anonymous report of a contemporaneous observation of erratic driving was sufficiently reliable under the totality of the circumstances. (47) The majority then held that the allegation of a single instance of reckless driving established reasonable suspicion of the ongoing crime of drunk driving (48)

        The majority examined the veracity of the anonymous tipster and concluded the tip was reliable. (49) First, the majority concluded that the caller was an eyewitness to the alleged dangerous driving, which made the tip more believable than one that only describes illegal activity. (50) Second, the criminal activity involved was fundamentally different from the concealed criminal activity that was at issue in previous anonymous informant cases. (51) According to the majority, a claim that a driver has been forced off the roadway does not require predictive aspects of criminal activity or special familiarity with the suspect because it "implies that the informant knows the other car was driven dangerously." (52) The majority also noted that certain rules of evidence support the conclusion that the anonymous caller was telling the truth. It analogized the report to the "present sense impression" and "excited utterance" hearsay exceptions. (54) The report was contemporaneous with the event, meaning it was less likely to be...

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