Justice Scalia on Anonymous 911 Tipsters

Today, the Supreme Court decided Prado Navarette v. California, a Fourth Amendment search case.  The Fourth Amendment limits the government’s power to stop and search people and the question in this case was whether the police overstepped their authority.

Highway patrol pulled over a pick-up truck and the police smelled, and then found, marijuana.  The men arrested later challenged the legality of the stop in court.  If the stop was illegal, the marijuana would not be admitted into evidence, and the men would probably go free.

The police said the stop was proper.  They received an anonymous 911 call from a woman who said a pickup had almost run her off the road.  The dispatcher took her information and the description of the truck.  The police found a pickup that matched the description, and then followed it for five minutes, and finally pulled it over.  Marijuana discovered, men arrested, case starts moving its way thru the courts. 

By a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court upheld the legality of the stop.  Interestingly, the case scrambled the usual right-left split among the justices.  Justice Breyer joined Thomas, Kennedy, Roberts and Alito for the majority.  Justice Scalia joined Ginsburg, Kagan, and Sotomayor in dissent.

Here is an excerpt from Scalia’s dissenting opinion:

The Court’s opinion serves up a freedom-destroying cocktail consisting of two parts patent falsity: (1) that anonymous 911 reports of traffic violations are reliable so long as they correctly identify a car and its location, and

(2) that a single instance of careless or reckless driving necessarily supports a reasonable suspicion of drunkenness. All the malevolent 911 caller need do is assert a traffic violation, and the targeted car will be stopped, forcibly if necessary, by the police. If the driver turns out not to be drunk (which will almost always be the case), the caller need fear no consequences, even if 911 knows his identity. After all, he never alleged drunkenness, but merely called in a traffic violation—and on that point his word is as good as his victim’s.

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.