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Doug  Wyllie

Doug Wyllie

Doug Wyllie has authored more than 1,000 articles and tactical tips aimed at ensuring that police officers are safer and more successful on the streets. Doug is a Western Publishing Association “Maggie Award” winner for Best Regularly Featured Digital Edition Column. He is a member of International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA), an Associate Member of the California Peace Officers’ Association (CPOA), and a member of the Public Safety Writers Association (PSWA).
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SCOTUS Backs Up Officers with Ruling on Anonymous Tips

In Navarette v. California, the Court found for the state saying officers must weigh the totality of circumstances when acting on anonymous tips.

April 24, 2014  |  by

On April 22, the Supreme Court ruled on Navarette vs. California, a case which called into question the validity of a traffic stop based only on an anonymous 911 tip. The justices ruled 5-4 in favor of the stop, saying in the majority opinion: "The traffic stop complied with the Fourth Amendment because, under the totality of the circumstances, the officer had reasonable suspicion that the truck’s driver was intoxicated."

The case comes from an August 2008 call to the Mendocino County 911 center reporting a pickup truck, suspected drunk driver, forcing a vehicle off the road. The caller gave a specific description of the car including the plate. The caller did not give his or her name, but given the fact that it was a 911 call, the dispatchers certainly had the caller's phone number. The pickup was located and an officer smelled marijuana coming from the truck. A search of the truck netted about 30 pounds of marijuana and the arrest of Lorenzo and Jose Navarette. They were later convicted of marijuana trafficking. They appealed, claiming an unreasonable stop in violation of their 4th Amendment rights.

Officers get anonymous tips, BOLOs, and "attempt to locate" calls all day long. A great deal of them are anonymous, but the officer is duty-bound to try to locate the alleged wrong-doer and, if found, investigate. What do you do when you find the vehicle or person who is alleged to have committed a crime? If the officer doesn't see any wrongdoing, then the officer has to make a reasonable decision based on what he or she knows. Every circumstance is different, and the justices in this case seemed to make an effort to limit the scope of Navarette vs. California, but the message was clear, and in my opinion, the right one. If it went the other way, then officers would have their hands tied if they locate the subject of a BOLO and can't investigate any further.

So what is the best practice when dealing with anonymous tips? My experience is that you have to evaluate the totality of the information you have. Like any other call for service, you have to go on what you know and what you see. It's always best, when dealing with a vehicle on the highway, to spot a violation yourself and articulate it in the official record. A probable cause stop based on a traffic violation is the best scenario, but that isn't always what happens. This is where the experience of the officer in evaluating and reporting what he or she knew at the time of the stop is invaluable to a successful prosecution.

In Navarette, the report was that a truck was being operated recklessly, therefore creating a hazard to other motorists. The officers had to try to find the car and investigate. What if they let it go without interdicting and the driver went on to kill somebody? I think the important factors that the officers are assumed to have considered in Navarette are: the tipster reported it right after it happened so most likely there wasn't time to make up a set of facts, the report was of a nature to create a public hazard, the caller was very specific in the vehicle description and license plate. There was no doubt that they had the right truck when they made the stop.

So what is the take away from Navarette vs. California? I think it should be that officers can and should act on a reasonable tip that a crime is being committed. Like every other call you handle involving a report of a crime, you have to evaluate every bit of information, use every bit of your experience and training, and make a reasonable and defensible decision on how to act. If dealing with a vehcile on the street, try to add your own observations to the mix to make the reason for the stop that much more defensible. In the end, you'll have to write your criminal report with as much detail as possible about what facts and circumstances you considered before you took action.


Comments (8)

Displaying 1 - 8 of 8

Samuel Clement @ 4/28/2014 3:51 PM

The SCOTUS ruling is outrageous, and by all rational standards unconstitutional. The Supremes have essentially thrown out probable cause, since police can now use an anonymous "tip," a purported anonymous tip, a tip down on order by a friend of the police, etc. The situation is ripe for abuse and can obviously cause situations where one low-life can now use the police to harass another low-life. Incidentally, the court had some odd splits, with some of the usually rational members going "off the rails" while some normally stupid justices got things right.

David Villanueva @ 4/28/2014 4:38 PM

Outstanding ruling. The "anonymous tip" allows for pieces of the puzzle that allows the establishment of reasonable suspicion to detain the party, a la Terry, to allow a detention, to determine is criminal activity has, is being, or about to be committed, and the person(s) you are contacting are involved in that conduct. If, as a result of the stop, there is no criminal activity afoot, then the Reasonable Suspicion is alleviated and the person is released from the minor intrusion of detention. Probable Cause is not the standard to detain, but rather arrest. As such, a tip called by a concerned citizen, even anonymous, coupled with the rest of the factors mentioned, allows for a contact and detention. Well done SCOTUS.

Carlos @ 4/28/2014 6:33 PM

With all 911 calls being recorded and retained, I think this is a reasonable decision. Otherwise, why would anyone bother to report aggressive or drunk drivers?

And despite what Samuel Clement says, the 911 call was not PC. The actual observation of the arresting Officer is. The 911 call merely provided dispatch with a description of the vehicle and it's possible location. A stop was affected based on what the Officer witnessed AND smelled.

Mike @ 4/28/2014 8:41 PM

Is it just me or do the majority of 4th Amendment cases involve drug trafficking? Who's footing the bill for the criminals? Rarely see one involving a shoplifter or vandalism. Why is that? Been a Peace Officer for a long time and have noticed this trend. Oh and Thanks SCOTUS, it is about public safety. These types of stops have been happening for a long time with usually just a warning to the offender as that is what is appropriate, though from time to time someone goes to jail.

gapp @ 4/29/2014 12:19 AM

What about "Crime Stoppers", that's annoymous all the time.

Jim B. @ 5/1/2014 9:05 AM

Samuel Clement, the Court didn't "throw out probably cause" here and they aren't saying that any old anonymous tip will do to justify police action. They are addressing whether "reasonable suspicion" can be based on an anon tip (there is a big difference there). And not just any old anon tip, one that supplied a sufficient amount of detail as to the crime reported (reckless driving), the suspect vehicle (Silver Ford F-150, CA plate 8D94925) and the time and location of the crime (Hwy 1, mile 88 south bound, 5 minutes ago). The officers then located the vehicle a short time later (about 20 minutes after the crime) at the approximate location it would have traveled to since the report (mile 69). All of those details added together give this tip it's veracity and provides the officers with the reasonable suspicion to make a stop. The arrest was based on what the officers saw and smelled after that point (probable cause), not on the tip itself.

AJ @ 5/1/2014 11:44 PM

A tip? No different than the Secret Police in West Germany! The isn't doing the will SCOTUS of "We The People" just the Ruling Class Elites, and New World Order Globalists! If "Public Safety" really mattered, Illegal Aliens would be DEPORTED! Period. You can find them in Chinese, and Mexican restaurants etc.

But if I call Congress or the Police. They don't deport them? What a stupid double standard! Are people Morons? This is more control for the Control Freaks to give more Corrupt Ruling Elites more POWER!

I've seen traffic hand out tickets galore in my 'hood. Pick on how War Vets are parked. Meanwhile, crazy "Legal Iranian" kill people down town driving drunk with Visas? No deportation Holder, and O intervene!

How about instead of Rating out "bad drivers" we get rid of people who steal SS#s, come here illegally or legally and play the system first?

Sounds like an Iron Curtain is in the USA to me!!! Public Safety = Newspeak for Controlling unwashed masses!

Sonny @ 5/2/2014 1:35 PM

Time to adjust those meds a bit there AJ.

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