Supreme Court Says Anonymous Tips Can Justify Traffic Stops

Even if the officer doesn't observe anything out of the ordinary, the anonymous call may suffice.

According to a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, an anonymous report of potentially careless driving will often justify a traffic stop.

In the case in question, a motorist called 911 and reported that a pickup truck had just run her off the freeway. She gave a description of the vehicle and its location. After receiving the report, a California Highway Patrol officer found the truck, but didn’t see it moving erratically. The officer nevertheless pulled it over. Another officer arrived at the scene of the stop. Both officers smelled marijuana when they approached the vehicle. A search revealed 30 pounds of cannabis in the truck bed. (Navarette v. California, 572 U. S. ____ (2014).)

The only question for the Court was whether the anonymous report created reasonable suspicion that justified the initial detention. The Court held that it did, despite the fact that the officer didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary during his limited opportunity to observe the truck. The Court held that the report was reliable enough to justify a stop to investigate potential drunk driving. In support of that conclusion, it noted the following:

  • The nature of the report indicated to the officer that the caller actually witnessed the truck’s dangerous movements. (In other words, the information wasn’t secondhand.)
  • The caller immediately and accurately described the truck and its location, suggesting that she was telling the truth.
  • Those who call 911 can usually be identified. Their calls can be traced and recorded. And making a false 911 report is a crime. Accordingly, those who are tempted to report something other than the truth will “think twice” before dialing 911.  

The four dissenting Justices said that the majority’s ruling creates a new standard: An officer can detain a motorist if an anonymous 911 caller describes potentially careless or reckless driving and the car’s location.

It’s possible that some state courts will rely on their own constitutions rather than the federal Constitution on this issue—in that way, they might require further corroboration of anonymous tips before allowing officers to act on them. But the Supreme Court’s ruling will probably be the controlling law throughout most of the country.