Violence on America’s highways has been dubbed “road rage.” Irate motorists have reacted to tailgating, slow driving and lane cut-offs with fists, clubs and even firearms. But, depending on the outcome of a recent case argued before the U.S. Supreme Court, revenge on the roadway may be just a phone call away.
The issue before the Court is simple — should police be able to pull drivers over based on an anonymous tip of reckless-driving? The government argues yes. Reckless driving is often the result of driving under the influence and keeping the public safe outweighs the inconvenience of a traffic stop.
The defendants argue no. Police should be required to corroborate the tip by following the driver and observing reckless driving.
In 2008, the California Highway Patrol was alerted about a reckless driver. Based on the tip, officers stopped a pickup truck in Mendocino County occupied by Lorenzo Navarette and his brother Jose Navarette.
The officers did not observe the truck being operated erratically. However, the police searched the truck and found over 100 pounds of marijuana.
The defendants argued that the traffic stop violated their constitutional rights, based on a Supreme Court ruling that anonymous tips alone are not sufficient for police to stop and search an individual. In 1990, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that an anonymous tip can support a detention only when it is detailed, predictive and provides sufficient reliability to support reasonable suspicion.
Ten years later, in a case out of Florida, the court ruled that police could not stop and search a teenager at a bus stop based only on an anonymous tip that he had a gun. The court reasoned that police must have reasonable suspicion that criminal activity may be underway before they can search a suspect — without more an anonymous tip does not amount to reasonable suspicion.
Reasonable suspicion is the same standard used to justify the police tactic known as stop-and-frisk, which has made headlines in New York City. The standard is the result of the 1968 landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in Terry v. Ohio. The Supreme Court ruled that police may stop, frisk and question an individual if there is a reasonable suspicion that the individual may be involved in criminal activity.
In dismissing the Florida gun case, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg worried that letting police act based on uncorroborated anonymous tips would make it too easy for grudge-holders to use police as their instrument of revenge, wrote Dominic Perella at MSNBC.com.
At the time, the government argued for an exception for firearms due to their inherent dangerousness. A tip about a gun should automatically justify a search. Ginsburg disagreed, “Such an exception would enable any person seeking to harass another to set in motion an intrusive, embarrassing police search of the targeted person simply by placing an anonymous call falsely reporting the target’s unlawful carriage of a gun.”
In the Navarette case argued last week, defense attorney Paul R. Kleven insisted that “officers acting on anonymous tips must corroborate the tips’ assertion of illegal conduct, as well as the identifying details, before making a stop, whether that tip involves erratic driving, illegal gun possession or any other allegation of misconduct.”
According to the McClatchy News Service, Chief Justice John Roberts repeatedly raised the possibility of malicious tipsters spreading false information. “What if the call is ... he didn’t have his seat belt on?” Roberts asked.
Lawyers for the state of California argued that a public safety threat justifies stopping and searching a vehicle based on an anonymous tip. Such a tip may provide the means to prevent an imminent violent act or stop and ongoing criminal enterprise.
In an age where identification is needed to board a plane, use a credit card and, in some places, vote — shouldn’t police be required, at a minimum, to corroborate the allegations of an anonymous tipster?
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010” is due out this summer. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewTMangino.