The California Highway Patrol received a call from a concerned citizen. That person had just been run off the road by a silver Ford F-150 pickup truck, license plate number 8D94925. Dispatchers passed the message to two CHP officers who were in the area. Each located the truck, followed it to verify the details relayed in the tip, and pulled it over.
When the officers approached the truck, they smelled marijuana, and after a search of the truck bed, found four large bags. Thought the officers verified the non-criminal details of the tip before pulling over the truck (i.e. color, plate number, etc.), they did not witness any illegal behavior or reckless driving before stopping the truck.
Is that enough to establish reasonable suspicion?
Anonymous Tips and SCOTUS
This case has already been decided by the Supreme Court. Maybe.
In 2000, the court stated, "Unlike a tip from a known informant whose reputation can be assessed and who can be held responsible if her allegations turn out to be fabricated, an anonymous tip alone seldom demonstrates the informant's basis of knowledge or veracity." To meet the reasonable standard threshold, the tip must be "suitably corroborated" and be "reliable in its assertion of illegality, not just in its tendency to identify a determinate person."
In that case, Florida v. J.L., the police stopped a man matching the description from a tip about a young black man with an automatic firearm at a bus stop.
The court's ruling left some grey area, however, noting that under certain risky circumstances, such as reports of a bomb, the danger justifies a lack of corroboration of illegal activity.
Drunk Drivers as "Bombs"
As the children's book says, if you give a mouse a cookie, he'll want some milk. In other words, we always need more.
While SCOTUS carved out an exception to corroborating illegal activity for narrow bomb-like circumstances, lower courts have expanded that exception to other dangers, including drunk drivers. In People v. Wells, the California Supreme Court carved out a DUI exception, due to the unique danger posed by intoxicated drivers. The California Court of Appeals applied that exception here, in an unpublished opinion.
The question is simple: does the Fourth Amendment require an officer who receives an anonymous tip regarding a drunken or reckless driver to corroborate dangerous driving before stopping the vehicle? Phrased differently, does the exception in Florida v. J.L. apply to drunk drivers?
- This Week's SCOTUS Grants (Part II): Unions, Fourth Amendment, IRS (FindLaw's U.S. Supreme Court Blog)
- Supreme Court to hear case on anonymous tips (San Francisco Chronicle)
- What Will the Fourth Amendment Mean After Fernandez? (FindLaw's California Case Law Blog)