By otmseo on May 10, 2014

Court allows anonymous tip to justify stop – Denies Motion to Suppress Evidence

police-on-the-scene-1172422-sChicago – The Supreme Court in the case of Narvarette v. California, 188 L.Ed. 2d 680, April 22, 2014, ruled that an anonymous report of a traffic violation justified the stop of a vehicle.  In this case, a five to four opinion, the majority opinion is written by Justice Thomas and the dissent by Justice Scalia.  This case concerns whether an anonymous tip to 911 can justify the stop of a vehicle under the Fourth Amendment.

Here are the facts.  A 911-dispatch center for the California Highway Patrol received a 911 call that a pickup truck ran the caller off the road.  The caller gave a description of the vehicle, license plate number, and location.  The dispatcher relayed the following:  “Showing southbound Highway 1 at mile marker 88.  Silver Ford 150 pickup.  Plate of 8-David-94925.  Ran the reporting party off the roadway and was last seen approximately five [minutes] ago.”  Officers found the truck, followed it for about five minutes, did not observe any traffic violations, and pulled the truck over.  When approaching the truck the officers smelled marijuana and a search found 30 pounds of it.

The defendant filed a motion to suppress the evidence, asserting that the police lacked a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity when they stopped his car.  The defendant lost at the trial court level and on appeal to the California Court of Appeals and the California Supreme Court denied review.

The majority of the Supreme Court Justices, agreed with the California Court, and four Justices disagreed.  The majority applied the following reasoning under the Fourth Amendment.  Brief investigative stops, such as traffic stops require that the police officer have a particularized and objective basis to believe or suspect that the person stopped is, or has been, engaged in criminal activity.  The Court rejects the argument that an investigative stop can only be based on an officer’s personal observations, compared to information supplied by a third party.  Anonymous tips however rarely show the truthfulness of the information or the basis of the information, but on occasion, they have been found to be sufficient.  Usually, this anonymous information is somehow corroborated by the officer’s independent investigation or observations of certain details.  So in one case, Alabama v. White, 496 U.S. 325 (1990) an anonymous tip informed the police that a brown Plymouth station wagon with a broken tail light would be delivering cocaine to a certain motel driven by a women was held sufficient.  Compared to a young black male wearing a plaid shirt standing by a bus stop has a gun, Florida v. J.L., 529 US 266 (2000).

The majority explains that an anonymous tip of a traffic violation implies that the informant personally observed this violation.  The majority also equates this type of tip to an excited utterance, which is admissible as an exception to the hearsay rule under Federal Rules of Evidence 803.  The Court also, relies heavily on the assumption that the defendant driver was driving drunk.  The dissenting opinion rejects this argument.

The dissent, calls the majority opinion deceptive, “Be not deceived” because this opinion really is a departure from the normal requirement that anonymous tips must be corroborated.

For more information about motions to suppress, go to