The United States Supreme Court dealt another blow to the 4th Amendment’s protection against unreasonable search and seizures when it delivered a deeply divided opinion, declaring that a vehicle may be stopped based on an anonymous 911 tip. Justice Clarence Thomas delivered the opinion of the Court in which Justices Kennedy, Breyer and Alito joined. Justice Scalia, with a keen perspective on reality wrote a well-reasoned and scathing dissent. He was joined by the Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor and Kagan.
An anonymous 911 caller reported that a vehicle had almost run her off the road (note that the 911 caller identified herself, bu the prosecution did not have her available for the hearing at the trial court level, so they proceeded as if she was anonymous and the opinion is based on the caller being anonymous).
Police responded and found the vehicle described by the 911 caller near the reported location. The police did not witness any driving that would lead them to believe that the driver was engaged in any criminal activity. They did not witness any violations of the California Motor Vehicle Code. In short, had it not been for the 911 call, there would have been no reason to stop the vehicle. They stopped the vehicle based on the 911 call, alone.
After stopping the vehicle, the police claim to have smelled fresh marijuana and they subsequently searched the vehicle, finding marijuana. The occupants moved to suppress the evidence based on aq bad stop–one in violation of the 4th Amendment.
The lower court denied the motion and they were convicted of transportation of marijuana. They appealed.
The California Court of Appeal denied their appeal, stating that they thought it was a valid stop and was in the interest of public safety. The Court wrote: “Finally, the court concluded that the caller reported driving that was sufficiently dangerous to merit an investigative stop without waiting for the officer to observe additional reckless driving himself.” The California Supreme Court denied review and the U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari.
The majority opinion compared the case to several other cases which required corroboration of the facts witnessed by an anonymous caller and discounted them all in favor of public safety. All of the courts cited to the dangers of “drunk driving” as reason to stop the vehicle which was reported to have almost run the 911 caller off the road. It is interesting to note that the majority opinion uses the phrase “drunk driving” a dozen times, yet this is not a case of drunk driving–this was a marijuana transportation case.
Justice Scalia’s dissent hit the nail squarely on the head. While the majority opined that no one would dare to abuse the 911 system to have someone stopped by the police simply to harass him or her, the dissent was correct–plenty of people would abuse the system for a myriad of reasons. Justice Scalia wrote:
“The Court’s opinion serves up a freedom-destroying cocktail consisting of two parts patent falsity: (1) that anonymous 911 reports of traffic violations are reliable so long as they correctly identify a car and its location, and (2) that a single instance of careless or reckless driving necessarily supports a reasonable suspicion of drunkenness. All the malevolent 911 caller need do is assert a traffic violation, and the targeted car will be stopped, forcibly if necessary, by the police. If the driver turns out not to be drunk (which will almost always be the case), the caller need fear no consequences, even if 911 knows his identity. After all, he never alleged drunkenness, but merely called in a traffic violation—and on that point his word is as good as his victim’s.
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, and not just drug dealers, 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. I respectfully dissent.”
Well-said, Justice Scalia. Well-said.