Can an Anonymous Tip Get You Arrested for Drunk Driving?

In a recent Supreme Court case, both sides took liberties with the facts.
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Tim Roske/AP

As I pointed out not long ago, the “facts” in appellate opinions are not the same as the, well, facts that lowly people like you and me must deal with. You know, the things that the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “[s]omething that has really occurred or is actually the case; . . . a particular truth known by actual observation or authentic testimony, as opposed to what is merely inferred, or to a conjecture or fiction.”

Judges get to live in the land of “conjecture or fiction.” Consider the Court’s recent 5-4 decision in Navarette v. California

Navarette deals with two very important issues—the fight against drunk driving on the one hand and the limits on police on the other. The majority opinion, by Justice Clarence Thomas, held that police officers may stop a driver to check whether he is drunk based solely on an anonymous call to a 911 dispatcher. Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a spirited dissent, calling the majority opinion “a freedom-destroying cocktail.”

The issue was this: When can the police rely on an anonymous tip of dangerous driving as a reason to stop a car to see if the driver is drunk? One August afternoon in 2008, 911 dispatch in Humboldt County, California, got a call from a driver reporting that a specific silver Ford pickup truck, license number supplied, had driven her off the southbound Pacific Coast Highway five minutes earlier. Highway Patrol officers found and trailed the car. It seemed to be driving normally. Nonetheless, they pulled the car over, supposedly to see whether the driver, Lorenzo Navarette, was drunk. He was not; but he was transporting 30 pounds of weed, which, the officers later said, was right there in plain smell.

The Fourth Amendment protects people and property from “unreasonable searches and seizures.” That means cops can’t just stop any vehicle they want on the off chance that the driver is Jesse Pinkman with a load of meth. Courts require a “reasonable suspicion” that the specific person being stopped has done something criminal. The courts have also held that the mere fact that a police officer has gotten (or claims to have gotten) a tip does not create by itself “reasonable suspicion.” The tip must either be from a known and credible source, or, if anonymous, must itself contain “indicia of reliability,” such as detailed predictions of what the suspect will do or other information to suggest that the secret tipster has more than malice in mind. The call in Navarette described an incident of dangerous driving and gave the car’s license number and direction of travel. That by itself might not be enough.

As it reached the Supreme Court, thus, Navarette was a case about anonymous 911 callers. But the 911 call in Navarette was not, in what for lack of a better word I will call fact, anonymous at all.  

According to the record in the case, the caller gave the 911 operator her name. But at the outset of the trial, the prosecutor summoned the wrong 911 operator and wasn’t able to get the actual recording of the call into evidence. The case had to progress as if the call had been anonymous. 

Well, you might say, no harm, no foul. It’s an important issue and the Court needed to decide it. But consider that Thomas’s opinion turned almost entirely on factual speculations. (Thomas was aware of the record below, and references it obliquely in his opinion.) Reasonable suspicion depends on “the factual and practical considerations of everyday life on which reason-able and prudent men, not legal technicians, act,” Thomas wrote, quoting case law. In this case, the decision to stop seemed reasonable.

Why? Some 911 systems, Thomas wrote, have technological “features that allow for identifying and tracing callers, and thus provide some safeguards against making false reports with immunity.” So, since a 911 call may not be anonymous at all, “a reasonable officer could conclude that a false tipster would think twice before using such a system.”

Scalia (writing for himself and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan) noted an amicus brief from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers suggesting that 911 systemsc can be used for false tips without fear of detection. He then wrote, “the present case surely suggests that amici are right—since we know neither the identity of the tipster nor even the county from which the call was made. But assuming the [majority] is right about the ease of identifying 911 callers, it proves absolutely nothing in the present case unless the anonymous caller was aware of that fact.” (This isn’t a second Scalia-mistake story; references in the opinion make clear that Scalia also knew the record below.)

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Garrett Epps is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He teaches constitutional law and creative writing for law students at the University of Baltimore, and is the author of American Epic: Reading the U.S. Constitution.

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