The United States Supreme Court agreed to hear two cases that will have a major impact on the prosecution of drunk driving cases in Massachusetts.
On October 1, 2013, the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear the appeal of two California brothers who were charged with drug possession and distribution after police officers pulled their truck over on an anonymous tip. The case is Navarette v. California, the filings can be found on the Scotus Blog.
In the Navarette case, the 911 caller’s tip was not that the drivers had drugs in the truck, but that truck had ran him off the road. The Supreme Court will determine whether or not the officers needed to have observed the truck’s reckless driving to have the reasonable suspicion necessary to stop the truck. This is a reoccurring issue that comes up under the Fourth Amendment in DUI cases across the country and in Massachusetts.
Background of the Navarette Case
Lorenzo Navarette and his brother were pulled over by two state patrol officers who asked for their identification. The officers pulled over the brothers on an anonymous tip that was received by the dispatch office stating that the truck had run the caller off the road. The caller informed the dispatcher of the truck’s color, model, and license plate, along with the location and direction it was heading. The offices dispatched eventually located the truck, and after following it for a few minutes without observing any sign of criminal activity or reckless driving, pulled the truck over.
The officers initially approached the car from the passenger’s side and requested identification. One of the officers then returned to the driver’s side of the car for more paperwork, and detected an odor of marijuana. The officers searched the truck and discovered multiple large bags of marijuana, and other items suggesting that marijuana was being sold.
After the brothers were charged, they asked the magistrate to bar the evidence of marijuana on the grounds that the officers violated their constitutional right to privacy by pulling them over without having reasonable suspicion. The magistrate however held that the anonymous tip was sufficient to justify the traffic stop, even if the officers themselves never saw any sign of reckless driving.
This is not the first time this issue has been confronted by the courts, and the United States Supreme Court has already refused to hear this issue in the past. The composition of the Court has changed since the Court issued its decision in J.L. v. Florida, which found an anonymous tip in that case insufficient to justify a seizure under the Fourth Amendment.
Four years ago, the United States Supreme Court refused to hear a case raising this issue and Chief Justice Roberts wrote that the Court was allowing drivers one free swerve and stated that the Court should have agreed to hear the issue.
While the decision will have major significance, in many cases it is difficult to show that a tip is anonymous as courts have held that the fact that cell phone numbers are traceable put the caller at risk of being known, taking the caller out of that of an anonymous caller.
A review of the Navarette case suggests that it is arguable that the call was not anonymous. Accordingly, the court may not have to reach the issue of whether a purely anonymous tip would comport with the Fourth Amendment in deciding the case.