Supreme Court to Decide if Police Must Corroborate Anonymous Tips Before Stopping Vehicles

Filed under: Criminal Law by Contributor @ October 14, 2013

On October 1, the Supreme Court granted certiorari to hear Navarette v. California. The Court will answer the question: “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?”

In August of 2008, police in Mendocino County, California received an anonymous tip that a vehicle was driving erratically and had run someone off the roadway. An officer eventually spotted the vehicle, and without ever witnessing the vehicle driving recklessly or erratically, stopped it. Inside were Petitioners Jose and Lorenzo Navarette, and the officer smelled an odor of marijuana coming from the vehicle. The officer conducted a search which revealed four bags of marijuana, and the men were charged with Transportation of Marijuana. The Petitioners moved to suppress the evidence, which was denied, and to dismiss the case, which was also denied. They appealed to the First Appellate District for a writ of mandate, which was denied, and to the California Supreme Court, which was also denied. After pleading guilty to Transportation of Marijuana, the Petitioners appealed again to the First Appellate District, which affirmed the judgment of the trial court, and to the California Supreme Court, which denied review. Last March, they filed a writ of certiorari to the United States Supreme Court, which just granted review.

It will be interesting to see how the Court decides this. At the heart of the issue is whether police need to corroborate a citizen’s allegation that someone is involved in criminal activity before commencing a stop, or if police can “take their word for it”. If the anonymous tip alone constitutes reasonable suspicion to stop a vehicle, then any evidence found from a legal search of the vehicle is admissible. In Pennsylvania, the controlling law on the issue comes from Commonwealth v. Jones. The Superior Court held that police do need to corroborate such anonymous tips, saying that the tip in that case “was insufficient to serve as his basis for a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.” Thus, Pennsylvania and California reach the exact opposite result based upon the same set of facts – which may be one reason why the United States Supreme Court has decided to review this issue. We plan to provide an update when the Supreme Court decides the case later next year.

1 comment:

  1. Remember that the Supreme Court, and courts in many states, have shown a willingness to change the rules of criminal procedure a bit when drunk driving is involved. The prime example of this is in the Supreme Court’s checkpoints doctrine, which allows checkpoints for drunk driving but not for drug trafficking. The Court in Michigan Department of State Police v. Sitz reasoned that the great hazards of drunk driving justify the slight intrusion into privacy induced by checkpoint stops. But the Court in City of Indianapolis v. Edmond limited that holding to areas of public danger, holding that catching drug traffickers does not protect the public the way stopping drunk drivers does. If this concern for drunk driving continues into the Navarrette case, I expect the Court to once again give police more latitude to stop drunk drivers using anonymous tips than they would otherwise have.

    You can read my article on the topic at 25 Reg. U. L. Rev. 185 (2012) or on SSRN at

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