In a 5-4 ruling in 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed police to initiate traffic stops based solely on anonymous tips. The Navarette v. California decision was so dangerous that Justice Antonin Scalia called it “a freedom-destroying cocktail.”
On August 23, 2008, Pravdo Navarette was stopped by a California Highway Patrol. No police officer ever witnessed Navarette driving in a way that would have indicated that he was impaired behind the wheel of his truck. Instead, entire basis for the stop was an anonymous phone call to police alleging that Navarette had driven dangerously. The caller identified the make, model and license plate number of the truck. Fifteen minutes later, a highway patrolman proceeded to follow Navarette for five minutes before finally pulling him over.
Once officers had Navarette on the side of the road, they observed that he was not intoxicated. However, officers began fishing for reasons to search the vehicle. One officer reported smelling the odor of marijuana. Police proceeded to search his truck, found a bundle of cannabis, and then arrested both men in the vehicle.
Navarette’s legal team argued that “the initial stop was unconstitutional because police did not have reasonable suspicion to stop his truck.” The also argued that police did not have reasonable suspicion to pull him over because they had not determined the identity or credibility of the caller.
On April 22, 2014, the court issued its 5-4 ruling. Justice Clarence Thomas authored the majority opinion upholding the initial stop based on the anonymous tipster’s observations. The U.S. Supreme Court found that the Fourth Amendment rights of the two men had not been violated, essentially because the anonymous caller was considered an eyewitness; her tip was all that police needed to stop the motorists and investigate them.
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