Navarette v. California, 572 U.S. __, 134 S. Ct. 1683 (Apr. 22, 2014)

The Court held in this “close case” that an officer had reasonable suspicion to make a vehicle stop based on a 911 call. After a 911 caller reported that a truck had run her off the road, a police officer located the truck the caller identified and executed a traffic stop. As officers approached the truck, they smelled marijuana. A search of the truck bed revealed 30 pounds of marijuana. The defendants moved to suppress the evidence, arguing that the traffic stop violated the Fourth Amendment because the officer lacked reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. Even assuming that the 911 call was anonymous, the Court found that it bore adequate indicia of reliability for the officer to credit the caller’s account that the truck ran her off the road. The Court explained: “By reporting that she had been run off the road by a specific vehicle—a silver Ford F-150 pickup, license plate 8D94925—the caller necessarily claimed eyewitness knowledge of the alleged dangerous driving. That basis of knowledge lends significant support to the tip’s reliability.” The Court noted that in this respect, the case contrasted with Florida v. J. L., 529 U. S. 266 (2000), where the tip provided no basis for concluding that the tipster had actually seen the gun reportedly possessed by the defendant. It continued: “A driver’s claim that another vehicle ran her off the road, however, necessarily implies that the informant knows the other car was driven dangerously.” The Court noted evidence suggesting that the caller reported the incident soon after it occurred and stated, “That sort of contemporaneous report has long been treated as especially reliable.” Again contrasting the case to J.L., the Court noted that in J.L., there was no indication that the tip was contemporaneous with the observation of criminal activity or made under the stress of excitement caused by a startling event. The Court determined that another indicator of veracity is the caller’s use of the 911 system, which allows calls to be recorded and law enforcement to verify information about the caller. Thus, “a reasonable officer could conclude that a false tipster would think twice before using such a system and a caller’s use of the 911 system is therefore one of the relevant circumstances that, taken together, justified the officer’s reliance on the information reported in the 911 call.” But the Court cautioned, “None of this is to suggest that tips in 911 calls are per se reliable.”

          The Court went on, noting that a reliable tip will justify an investigative stop only if it creates reasonable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot. It then determined that the caller’s report of being run off the roadway created reasonable suspicion of an ongoing crime such as drunk driving. It stated:

The 911 caller . . . reported more than a minor traffic infraction and more than a conclusory allegation of drunk or reckless driving. Instead, she alleged a specific and dangerous result of the driver’s conduct: running another car off the highway. That conduct bears too great a resemblance to paradigmatic manifestations of drunk driving to be dismissed as an isolated example of recklessness. Running another vehicle off the road suggests lane positioning problems, decreased vigilance, impaired judgment, or some combination of those recognized drunk driving cues. And the experience of many officers suggests that a driver who almost strikes a vehicle or another object—the exact scenario that ordinarily causes “running [another vehicle] off the roadway”—is likely intoxicated. As a result, we cannot say that the officer acted unreasonably under these circumstances in stopping a driver whose alleged conduct was a significant indicator of drunk driving. (Citations omitted).