I am currently representing a person for a California DUI who was arrested after an anonymous tipster informed law enforcement that a possible drunk driver was on the road. Such a situation often raises the question, “Can law enforcement arrest someone based on an anonymous tip when the officers themselves have not witnessed any conduct that would lead them to believe a driver was driving under the influence?”
Unfortunately, the United States Supreme Court recently held that law enforcement can go off of an anonymous tip of a potential drunk driver in the case of Navarette v. California _____ U.S. _____ (Docket No. 12-9490)(2014).
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 brothers, 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 (2006) 38 Cal.App.4th 1078, 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.”
The case was appealed to the United States Supreme Court which held that an anonymous tip can give law enforcement the authority to pull someone over on suspicion of driving under the influence.
The Court held that “under appropriate circumstances, an anonymous tip can demonstrate ‘sufficient indicia of reliability to provide reasonable suspicion to make [an] investigatory stop,’” quoting Alabama v. White (1990) 496 U.S. 325, 327.
In finding “sufficient indicia of reliability,” the court relied on 1.) the fact that the caller claimed eyewitness knowledge of dangerous driving, 2.) the fact that the tip was made contemporaneously with the incident, and 3.) the fact that the caller used 911 to make the tip likely knowing that the call could be traced.
According to the court, if the tip bears “sufficient indicia of reliability,” officers need not observe driving which would give rise to suspicion that a person was driving under the influence or even that the driver committed a traffic violation. They only need the unverified and unsupported anonymous tip.