Navarette v. California
Another blow to the Fourth Amendment delivered by the U.S. Supreme Court on April 22, 2014. The decision allows officers to stop vehicles solely upon an anonymous tip of wrong-doing. Justice Scalia, dissenting, summarized the new rule for law enforcement as: So long as the caller identifies where the car is, anonymous claims of a single instance of possibly careless or reckless driving, called in to 911, will support a traffic stop.
In this case, the police did not know who the caller was, did not know her phone number, address or even where she called from. The caller identified a silver Ford F-150, with a specific license plate number, and location, as running her off the road. Police located the truck and followed it for five minutes. During this five minute period, the driver of the truck drove impeccably, however because of the call, the police pulled the truck over for suspicion of drunk driving – and found 30lbs of marijuana. Was there any reason to believe the driver was drunk? No. The driver couldn’t even be charged with reckless driving, because the witness was unknown. Is there any indication that the unknown witness was telling the truth? Again, no.
What are we left with after this decision? Our freedom of movement on the road can be curtailed and interrupted by officers stopping us because of uncorroborated and anonymous tips, true or false, of possible drunk driving. All freedom loving motorists need be cautious of malevolent 911 callers asserting traffic violations, causing stops, forcibly if necessary, by the police.
Traffic Stop Searches
The question of permissible scope of searches and seizures by law enforcement in the context of minor traffic infractions is a major issue in criminal law today.
The Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable intrusions on a person’s liberty arises when an officer seizes a person. Temporary detention of individuals during a stop of an automobile by the police, even if only for a brief period and for a limited purpose, constitutes a ‘seizure’ of ‘persons.’ As a general matter, the decision to stop an automobile is reasonable when the officer has probable cause to believe that a traffic violation has occurred.
Traffic stops often are pretext for a drug investigation. Being a single person in an automobile from Colorado or California enhances the likelihood of being stopped for a minor violation of the law. These stops often start off with the officer indicating that only a warning will be issued. The officer then requests that the driver come back to the law-enforcement vehicle, at which time the officer asks a plethora of questions about the driver’s travels. The routine traffic stop is then transformed into a drug interdiction investigation.
A valid traffic stop may become “unlawful if it is prolonged beyond the time reasonable required to complete [its] mission.” This means the seizure must be limited both in scope and duration. So long as inquiries unrelated to the traffic stop “do not measurably extend the duration of the stop” they do not run afoul of the constitution.
Often, about the time the officer is going to issue the warning, the officer will request to search the vehicle. The driver should always tell the officer, politely, that they do not consent to a search and then inquire whether they are free to leave.