The holiday season is fast approaching and before you know it, law enforcement will be ramping up its efforts to catch drunk drivers. Their efforts will inevitably include saturation patrols and DUI checkpoints, but they might also include, as they’ve done in the past, an ad campaign encouraging motorists on the road to contact law enforcement if they suspect that another driver is under the influence.
If an anonymous caller tips off police that someone might be driving drunk, the officer has no personal knowledge of facts that would lead them to believe that someone is driving drunk. The officer is only going off of what the tip had said. The tip could be accurate, it could be a lie, or it could just be mistakenly inaccurate. An officer must have probable cause to stop a driver on suspicion of a DUI, and probable cause means that the officer has reasonable and trustworthy facts that the driver is drunk.
The question becomes: Can an anonymous tip give an officer the required probable cause to stop a driver on suspicion of driving under the influence?
The United States Supreme Court in 2014 concluded in the case of Navarette v. California that an officer can use an anonymous tip as the basis for a DUI stop.
In Navarette v California, 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.
Officers identified the occupants of the truck as brothers Lorenzo Prado Navarette and Jose Prado Navarette.
At trial, 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, but appealed.
At the appellate level, the court ruled against the brothers saying, “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 brothers appealed again, this time to the United States Supreme Court. Once again, the court concluded that an anonymous tip alone can give law enforcement the justification to pull someone over on suspicion of driving under the influence.
In quoting the previous case of Alabama v. White, the Supreme Court said, “[U]nder appropriate circumstances, an anonymous tip can demonstrate ‘sufficient indicia of reliability to provide reasonable suspicion to make [an] investigatory stop.’”
In finding that the anonymous tip was reliably, the court relied on the fact that the caller claimed eyewitness knowledge of dangerous driving, the fact that the tip was made contemporaneously with the eyewitness knowledge of the dangerous driving, and the fact that the caller used 911 to make the tip (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.
Does anyone else see the problem here?
Justice Scalia did and he voiced his concern in his dissent to the majority opinion in Navarette v. California.
“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.”
Anonymous tipsters are not necessarily reporting on drunk drivers (they don’t know if who they’re reporting on is even drunk). 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 trip is perfect and that all driving trips, no matter how short or simple, contain some mistakes. This necessarily means that everyone on the road is a target of anonymous tipsters and anyone can be stopped on suspicion of DUI simply because someone else reported their mere driving mistake (even if they are not drunk).