SCOTUS Releases Navarette Decision Regarding Traffic Stops

Posted On April 22, 2014 by Daniel Koewler

Today the United State Supreme Court issued their decision in the case of Navarette v. California, dealing with the constitutionality of traffic stops based on anonymous tips. This is a tricky area of law - police need to be able to state a specific, reasonable basis for stopping a driver . . . but when it comes to traffic stops, that burden is very, very low. Speeding, driving on the fog line, and sometimes even just weaving within one lane of traffic are all examples of situations that can lead to a constitutional traffic stop.

But what happens when the officer sees no traffic infractions at all? What if the stop is based solely on the tip of an anonymous complainant? That was the question raised in the Navarette case, and the answer was . . . unhelpful. The Court refused to issue any bright line rules (specifically pointing out that anonymous 911 calls are not automatically considered reliable enough to support a traffic stop), but appeared to consider the nature of the alleged offense (the complainant was driven off the road by another vehicle), the time elapsed between the call and the incident, and the fact that the call was made through the 911 system (which makes it easier to track down callers who make false tips).

The real "holding" of the Navarette case is that traffic stops based upon anonymous 911 calls are not automatically unconstitutional . . . depending on the facts of the case.

Of note was the dissent authored by Justice Scalia, who in typical fashion ridiculed some of the logic used by the majority. It's worth reading the whole decision, but we'll leave you with this quote that nicely sums up our own opinions on the Navarette case:

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.