I’ve seen them and I’m sure you have too; road signs or billboards that encourage drivers to call the police if they spot a suspected drunk driver on the road. I can tell you that drivers often do, in fact, anonymously call police to report other drivers whom they suspect are driving drunk. If the callers are anonymous, how do the police know whether they are telling the truth about what they saw or whether they are even accurate? Police don’t know and, unfortunately, they don’t need to know. According to the law, an anonymous tip is enough for law enforcement to stop someone on suspicion of driving under the influence.
In 2014, the United States Supreme Court decided the case of Navarette v. California, which concluded that law enforcement can go off of an anonymous tip to stop a suspected drunk driver.
The case stemmed from a 2008 stop where a motorist was pulled over by California Highway Patrol after an anonymous tip. The anonymous tipster told the dispatcher that they had been run off of Highway 1 near Fort Bragg by someone driving a pickup truck and provided the pickup’s license plate number. As the CHP officer approached the pickup, they smelled marijuana and discovered four bags of it inside the bed of the truck.
Following the stop, the occupants of the truck were identified as brothers Lorenzo Prado Navarette and Jose Prado Navarette.
At the trial level, the brothers filed a motion to suppress evidence claiming that the officers lacked the reasonable suspicion needed to stop them, thus violating the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution. The judge, however, denied the motion. The brothers then pleaded guilty to transporting marijuana and were sentenced to 90 days in jail.
The brother appealed. However, the appellate court in a 3-0 ruling 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 appellate court relied on the 2006 California Supreme Court case of People v. Wells, which stated, “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.”
The case was appealed once again to the United States Supreme Court. And, once again, the Court ruled that an anonymous tip can give law enforcement the reasonable suspicion to pull someone over on suspicion of driving under the influence.
The Supreme Court stated that ““under appropriate circumstances, an anonymous tip can demonstrate ‘sufficient indicia of reliability to provide reasonable suspicion to make [an] investigatory stop,’” quoting the 1990 case of Alabama v. White.
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.
The problem with this ruling is that people are not anonymously reporting drunk drivers. Rather, they are reporting driving errors, any of which can be interpreted as drunk driving. Everybody makes mistakes while driving. In fact, it might be fair to say that no driving excursion is flawless. This necessarily means that everyone on the road is a target of anonymous tipsters and anyone can be arrested on suspicion of DUI simply because someone else reported their mere driving mistake.
In his dissent, Justice Scalia voiced the same concerns:
“Drunken driving is a serious matter, but so is the loss of our freedom to come and go as we please without police interference. To prevent and detect murder we do not allow searches without probable cause or targeted Terry stops without reasonable suspicion. We should not do so for drunken driving either. After today’s opinion all of us on the road…are at risk of having our freedom of movement curtailed on suspicion of drunkenness, based upon a phone tip, true or false, of a single instance of careless driving.”