Relying on an Anonymous Tip to Stop a Drunk or Reckless Driver

October 17, 2013

The Supreme Court in WashingtonIn the first orders list of its 2013 term, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case that may prove to be a significant development of the Court’s Fourth Amendment jurisprudence, or, then again, it may not. The case is Navarette v. California, and it poses the question of whether the Fourth Amendment requires an officer who receives an anonymous tip regarding a drunken or reckless driver to corroborate dangerous driving before stopping the vehicle.

The Court’s understanding of the Fourth Amendment’s contours has been evolving of late. In the 2009 case of Arizona v. Gant, for example, the Court limited the broad reading of New York v. Belton (1981), which understood the search incident to arrest exception to the warrant requirement effectively to authorize a search incident to every arrest of a recent occupant of a vehicle. Instead, Gant held that the police may search a vehicle incident to a recent occupant’s arrest only when the arrestee is unsecured and within reaching distance of the passenger compartment.

In the 2012 case of U.S. v. Jones, the Court, in a split decision, affirmed the validity of a common-law trespassory test for Fourth Amendment violations by holding that the government’s installation of a Global–Positioning–System (GPS) tracking device on a suspect’s vehicle, and its use of that device to monitor the vehicle’s movements, was a Fourth Amendment search. This was so because the government physically occupied private property for the purpose of obtaining information. In his opinion for the Court, Justice Scalia stated that the Katz v. U.S. reasonable expectation of privacy standard for Fourth Amendment violations in effect since 1967 was added to, and was not a substitute for, the common-law trespassory test.

During the past term that ended in June, the Court relied on Jones to hold, in Florida v. Jardines, that a drug detection dog’s sniff on the front porch of a home was a trespassory search that violated the Fourth Amendment. But Maryland v. King determined that using cheek swabs to take and analyze DNA samples from those arrested but not yet convicted of serious offenses is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. In Missouri v. McNeeley, however, the Court ruled that the natural metabolization of alcohol is not per se an exigency justifying warrantless blood draws from suspected drunk drivers.

The Navarette case deals with events leading to the police stopping a suspected drunk or reckless driver. An intermediate California appellate court held that, even though the police did not view any acts of reckless driving, they were justified in stopping a silver Ford F150 pickup truck, based on an anonymous tipster’s 911 report that a vehicle of that description had run the reporting party off the roadway. The state court relied in part on a statement in the Supreme Court decision, in Florida v. J.L. (2000), speculating whether the danger alleged in an anonymous tip might be so great as to justify a warrantless search even without a showing of reliability, such as a report of a person carrying a bomb.

Whether this “danger exception” postulated in J.L. has legs will be revealed by the Court’s ruling in Navarette.