Once again we see that our right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure finds too few friends in the United States Supreme Court. The issue in Navarette v. California, decided this week, was whether the fourth amendment requires an officer who receives an anonymous tip regarding a drunken or reckless driver to corroborate the claim of dangerous driving before stopping the car. In a decision written by Justice Thomas, the Supreme Court ruled that the stop was "reasonable" and complied with the constitutional requirement based on "the totality of the circumstances."
This case started with an anonymous 911 call from a driver who claimed to have just been driven off the road by a specific truck. Officers stopped the truck, and said they smelled marijuana as they approached it. The tip was said to have created a reasonable suspicion of drunk driving, so the stop could be justified as a "brief investigative stop."
Not everyone agreed. The decision was 5-4, with Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor, Kagan and Scalia (writing in dissent) joining to warn of the potential implications of such a decision. To be sure, there was more than an anonymous tip by the time the Patrolmen found the 30 lbs of marijuana in the truck. There was the smell of marijuana when they had approached, as well as the assumed reliability of the 911 call and the specific details of the vehicle. But as Justice Scalia writes, the majority opinion"purports to adhere to our prior cases" and "does not explicitly adopt… a departure from our normal Fourth Amendment requirement that anonymous tips must be corroborated."
But, he warns: "Be not deceived." "The Court’s opinion serves up a freedom-destroying cocktail." He explains: "Law enforcement agencies follow closely our judgments on matters such as this, and they will identify at once our new rule: So long as the caller identifies where the car is, anonymous claims of a single instance of possibly careless or reckless driving, called in to 911, will support a traffic stop. This is not my concept, and I am sure would not be the Framers’, of a people secure from unreasonable searches and seizures."
So there we have it – the Supreme Court continues to make it easier for the police to stop us in our cars based on nothing more than an anonymous claim to a 911 dispatcher. The investigative stop originally required that police officers have articulable facts supporting a "reasonable belief that criminal activity was afoot." If I call dispatch and claim that a silver Ford pickup truck just forced me from the road, should officers be able to stop any and every silver Ford pickup truck they see? Apparently five members of the court believe that to be the case.
The framers of the constitution feared that this country might, without adequate safeguards, permit authorities to search their homes without any cause. Their answer was to require that any search or seizure require probable cause to believe a crime had been committed. Admittedly, probable cause is not a high standard, but it is something. I’d have thought it was something more than an unsworn claim over a cell phone to a 911 dispatcher.