A closely divided Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld the search of a California man’s drug-laden car following an anonymous tip.
In a case that atypically split justices, the court’s 5-4 majority concluded the Constitution permitted the August 2008 search. Alerted by a call about a reckless driver, California Highway Patrol officers stopped a silver Ford F-150 pickup in Mendocino County. They found a driver, a passenger and four bags stuffed with 30 pounds of marijuana.
The otherwise routine arrest triggered a national controversy over whether the anonymous tip was sufficient evidence to justify stopping and searching the truck.
“We have firmly rejected the argument that reasonable cause for an investigative stop can only be based on the officer’s personal observation, rather than on information supplied by another person,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the majority.
Conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, who often allies himself with Thomas, joined three other dissenters.
“Drunken driving is a serious matter, but so is the loss of our freedom to come and go as we please without police interference,” Scalia wrote. “To prevent and detect murder we do not allow searches without probable cause or targeted...stops without reasonable suspicion. We should not do so for drunken driving either.”
Emergency dispatchers in the August 2008 incident did obtain specific information, including the license plate number, concerning the southbound truck that reportedly ran the anonymous tipster off the road. The responding California Highway Patrol officers, though, did not see any sign of erratic driving before they pulled over driver Lorenzo Prado Navarette and his brother, Jose Prado Navarette, several miles from the town of Fort Bragg.
Thomas, in the court’s majority opinion, reasoned that the “indicia of reliability” was sufficient to provide police with reasonable suspicion about the driver to justify a stop.
Anonymous tips have caused problems in past Supreme Court cases.
In a 2000 case out of Florida, justices unanimously ruled Miami-Dade Police Department officers were wrong to search a teenager at a bus stop based solely on an anonymous tip that he was carrying a gun. Justices noted in the Florida case that police could not confirm the informant’s reliability.