Supreme Court Delivers Blow to Fourth Amendment

The Supreme Court has reached a decision in Prado Navarette v. California, a Fourth Amendment search case. The Fourth Amendment limits the government from unreasonable search and seizures. The question of Prado was whether police officers have the authority to stop cars and question drivers based on anonymous calls to 911.

An anonymous tipster called 911 to report the license plate, description of the vehicle, and location of an erratic driver. Police officers pulled over the vehicle and found marijuana. The men were arrested, but they challenged the legality of the stop. If the stop was illegal, the marijuana wouldn’t be admitted into evidence, and it is unlikely that the state would still be able to charge them.

Before this decision, police could not use an anonymous report of speeding or swerving as having “reasonable suspicion” to stop a vehicle. Police officers no longer have to see the erratic driving themselves to stop the vehicle. Now, anonymous 911 reports of traffic violations can be considered reliable and used as a basis to stop someone so long as they correctly identify a car and its location. Anyone on the road is at risk of having their freedom curtailed based on the suspicion of drunkenness by an anonymous caller, true or false, because of an instance of careless driving.

Justice Scalia enforces the consequences of this decision in his dissent.

“All the malevolent 911 caller need do is assert a traffic violation, and the targeted car will be stopped, forcibly if necessary, by the police. If the driver turns out not to be drunk (which will almost always be the case), the caller need fear no consequences, even if 911 knows his identity,” laments Scalia.