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US Supreme Court splits on traffic stop issue

The United States Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that an anonymous tip may be sufficient in some cases to justify an investigatory stop. While the majority opinion did not go so far as to say that an anonymous tip standing alone, without any other information, is enough to justify a traffic stop to investigate a possible drunk driving offense, the court did not require much more. The case was decided by a sharply divided court. Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a scathing dissent in the 5-4 high court ruling.

The majority opinion notes that under federal constitutional principles, an anonymous tip concerning drunk driving standing alone seldom justifies a traffic stop. An anonymous caller had reported to 911 dispatchers that she had nearly been run off the road by a vehicle, and gave the dispatcher a description and location of the vehicle.

The majority reasoned that because the incident had allegedly occurred moments before the 911 call, the anonymous tipster had little time to make up a story. She described an alleged offense and provided the license number on the vehicle, according to the Supreme Court.

Law enforcement found the suspect vehicle and after observing the pickup for a period of time without seeing any swerving or other traffic violations officers made a traffic stop. The majority concluded that the stop was justified to investigate a possible impaired driving offense. During the stop, authorities found marijuana in the truck and the two people inside were arrested on drug charges.

What happens if a driver on the road has a grudge and reports alleged erratic driving of another vehicle based upon his or her chip on the shoulder?

Justice Scalia says in a dissenting opinion that the woman did not allege a possible ongoing drunk driving offense, but an isolated incident that could have involved a driver avoiding a pothole. Alternatively, he opines that an anonymous tipster could simply have a grudge. He hypothesizes that the pickup driver may have held “hostility to [the anonymous caller’s] ‘Make Love, Not War’ bumper sticker.”

Moreover, Justice Scalia notes that the officer followed the truck for five minutes and observed the driving conduct to be “irreproachable.” The dissenting opinion states that the high court ruling justifying the stop “serves up a freedom-destroying cocktail.”

Constitutional issues can involve complex analysis and the line between what is lawful and unlawful may be narrow. Criminal defense lawyers will still be able to challenge traffic stops under the high court ruling on a case-by case basis.

Source: United States Supreme Court, “Naverette v. California, No. 12-9490,” April 22, 2014

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