UNDERSTANDING THE LIMITATIONS OF ANONYMOUS CALLERS
A REVIEW OF NAVARETTE v. CALIFORNIA
AUTHOR’S NOTE: This article reviews the U.S. Supreme Court case of Navarette v. California. The information is meant to educate the reader on the latest U.S. Supreme Court rulings on important law enforcement functions. However, like all of our articles, the information provided here should in no way be considered legal advice. Readers are advised to consult with their local prosecutors and judges in light of the Navarette decision to gain guidance on the acceptable level of enforcement in local jurisdictions.
Navarette v. California
This case stems from a 911 call to the California Highway Patrol. On August 23, 2008 CHP dispatchers in Mendocino County received information from their counterparts in Humboldt County regarding a reckless driver on Highway 1. The caller provided dispatchers the suspect’s vehicle description, a “silver, Ford F150”, and included the F-150‘s specific California license plate. The caller claimed the driver of the F150 ran the caller off the road and was continuing southbound on Highway 1 from mile marker 88. The information was broadcast about 5 minutes after the actual call.
A CHP officer responded to the area northbound, and located the F150 southbound on Highway 1 near mile marker 69. The F-150 was located 13 minutes after the dispatch, and had traveled 19 miles in that time. The location of the F-150 when found by the CHP officer was consistent with the time the call was received, and typical highway speeds in the direction provided by the caller.
Without any further information, the CHP officer stopped the F-150. Another CHP officer traveling southbound on the call arrived as well. Upon approaching the truck the officers smelled the odor of marijuana coming from the truck. A subsequent search of the truck revealed 30 pounds of marijuana.
Obviously the defense questioned the veracity of the “anonymous” tip, and sought to exclude the marijuana evidence based on the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine. Interestingly, the caller in this case was known, as she had identified herself and provided her phone number. However, the prosecutor did not introduce the taped call, the caller, or the dispatcher as evidence during the suppression hearing so each reviewing Court considered this case as if the information had been received from an “anonymous” source.
The Supreme Court’s review started by re-emphasizing reasonable suspicion stops are justified under the 4th Amendment, when the officer has “a particularized and objective basis for suspecting the particular person stopped of criminal activity.” The Court then laid out a fine line that reasonable suspicion “is dependent upon both the content of information possessed by police and its degree of reliability”. This statement forms the basis for decision making by law enforcement.
First, that the information received from an anonymous source must be “specific” enough in nature to narrow the focus of criminal behavior to a “specific” individual or persons. Of particular weight to the Courts is if the anonymous informant can accurately predict future behavior of the target of the investigation. Second, but equally important, is that law enforcement performs at least some investigation to establish at least some accuracy in the information received.
In the Navarette case the Court recognized that the 911 caller described a specific dangerous criminal action, and produced “specific” information on the suspect vehicle. This information indicated an eye witness account, rather than 3rd hand information, and added to the reliability of the information received. Particularly important to the Court’s decision was their reference to the NHTSA Manual on DWI Detection. The Court felt that the reported violation was so in line with impaired driving that it rose to a higher level warranting police action.
That information was then investigated by CHP officers and found to be trustworthy. The CHP officers located the suspect vehicle at a point on the highway that was consistent with the caller’s time of report. Based upon the dangerous nature of the reported violation, and the trustworthiness of the report by the CHP investigation, the Court ruled a very close 5-4 that the CHP officers’ actions were lawfully permissible.
Word of Caution
Justice Scalia, who is traditionally a strong proponent of law enforcement, actually wrote in the dissent in this case. His words should give additional pause to every law enforcement officer who begins to act on an anonymous tip. His concern was that police would misinterpret the Court’s findings, and decide that reasonable suspicion exists anytime an anonymous caller reports careless driving. That is not what the Supreme Court finding in Navarette describes, and requires officers to weigh the scales of reasonableness with more caution.
The importance of following the 2-prong test described above cannot be understated. In addition to meeting that 2-prong test, the level of seriousness the criminal behavior rises to must be considered with particular interest in any type of enforcement action.
The Supreme Court took the additional time in their analysis to focus on the serious nature of the original complaint – that the F150 had left its lane of travel to force another vehicle off the highway. As such, officers should evaluate the nature of the complaint before acting on anonymous tips.
For instance, an anonymous report of a seat belt violation or failure to use turn signal, even with a particular vehicle described, will likely not satisfy the framework of Navarette for officers to stop based solely on the anonymous caller’s report. In the same context, a jaywalker or litter bug, will likely not impress the Courts enough to satisfy police stopping that individual based solely on an anonymous tip even if the officers find the person in the area described.
To emphasize the importance of this decision making process a look at the similar cases involving anonymous tips prior to the Navarette ruling is advisable. Those two distinct decisions covered more of the ends of the discussion, where Navarette finds itself close to the middle of the debate. The cases on the polar ends were Alabama v. White and Florida v. J.L.
Alabama v. White
In Alabama v. White the U.S. Supreme Court recognized that an anonymous caller that was able to provide specific and particular details about a future crime and suspect, could establish enough reasonable suspicion for police to stop the suspect and investigate further. The information provided by the White anonymous caller included the suspect’s description, the apartment complex where she lived and would be leaving from, that she would be selling illegal drugs, the suspect’s vehicle, the time the suspect would leave her apartment to carry out a drug sale, and the location the suspect was going to travel to conduct a drug deal.
Police followed up on the anonymous tip, and observed White’s vehicle at the apartment identified by the caller. During surveillance police observed White leave her apartment, enter the vehicle identified by the caller, and then travel in the most direct route to the location identified by the caller for the drug transaction. Just prior to arriving at that location police conducted a stop and began their investigation. As a result marijuana and cocaine was found in White’s possession.
With the detail and “particular” information provided by the anonymous caller, especially the accurate prediction of future behavior that was verified through police surveillance, the High Court found that the information was sufficient to establish reasonable suspicion. As such, the Supreme Court decided law enforcement was justified under the 4th Amendment, and under the Terry v. Ohio decision, to stop White and investigate the claims of illegal activity further.
Adams v. Williams
The U.S. Supreme Court relied on two previous decisions in Adams v. Williams and Illinois v. Gates to clarify the justification for a stop on proper reasonable suspicion. In the Adams case the Court decided an informant’s tip could provide sufficient “indicia of reliability” to justify a Terry stop, even if that same information was insufficient to support an arrest or search warrant.
In this case the Supreme Court laid out a very important distinction between “reasonable suspicion” that justifies a Terry stop, and “probable cause” which is sufficient to allow an arrest or a search warrant. In essence, the Court has recognized the difficult job law enforcement has to investigate suspicious activity versus outright criminal activity. The Court has been clear that individual rights protected under the 4th Amendment must not be violated, yet also recognized that when certain information or activities are put together, a “reasonable officer” could draw a “reasonable” conclusion that criminal activity could be happening, is happening, or is about to happen. In those limited circumstances, law enforcement can justify a limited detention for investigation.
Illinois v. Gates
The second previous decision used in the argument to justify the law enforcement actions in Alabama v. White is that case of Illinois v. Gates. In the Gates case the Supreme Court adopted a “totality of the circumstances” standard in determining whether an informant’s tip, could lead to probable cause for arrest or a search warrant.
In this case the Supreme Court again decided that an anonymous informant’s tip providing “highly detailed” and “specific” information on a suspect, and the suspect’s future criminal activity, when corroborated by police investigation, could be reasonable to establish probable cause for the issuance of a search warrant when considered with the “totality of the circumstances”.
Florida v. J.L.
In this case The Court ruled against police use of an anonymous tip and their subsequent detention and frisk of a possible match for the tip. Miami-Dade police received an anonymous tip that a black male, wearing a plaid shirt, and standing at a specific bus stop, was armed with a firearm. WIthout any further indication that criminal behavior was occurring, and without any additional investigation by the officers, the officers stopped J.L. and two of his friends and frisked him. J.L., a juvenile in Florida and thus not fully named, was the only one of the three wearing a plaid shirt. He was found to be armed with a concealed handgun, was arrested and charged.
The defense argued that the information received from an unverified source did not rise to the level of reasonable suspicion for the police to detain or frisk J.L. This case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which agreed with the defense.
The High Court reasoned that an unknown caller, who only identified J.L. by a general clothing description, at a very public location, did not rise to the level to achieve reasonable suspicion despite the accusation J.L. was armed. When the police arrived they did not observe any suspicious behavior, did not observe a firearm or testify to seeing any kind of awkward bulge, but immediately frisked the three based solely on the caller’s information.
As the Supreme Court reviewed the precedent case law it went back to the foundational case of Terry v. Ohio. That case recognized that officers may rely on their experience, along with articulable facts about the particular person under investigation, to warrant a temporary detention for investigation. In addition, Terry v. Ohio set the clear standard that a frisk of the detained person’s outer clothing is reasonable, if and only if, the officer can clearly explain why they felt the detained person may be armed and dangerous to the officer. Clearly, the officers in Miami-Dade did not fulfill the required investigatory element, and their lack of articulable reasons for believing that J.L. was in fact armed ultimately led to the firearm’s discovery being thrown out.
In this case, we see the consistent trend that the Supreme Court is taking in regards to anonymous tips. First, the tip must be “specific” and identify “particular” targets of an investigation. Additionally the Court has leaned heavily on the level of crime being anonymously reported. The more serious the crime reported, the more favorable the Court has viewed enforcement action. Finally, law enforcement must at least conduct some form of investigation to verify the accuracy of the anonymous caller’s report.
Recent events in New York City have brought the concept of “stop and frisk” roaring into the national headlines, and not in a light favorable to law enforcement. However, the legal concept was clearly established nearly 50 years ago in Ohio.
Officers cannot use unsubstantiated anonymous tips to warrant a stop and frisk, just as they are not permitted to use vague, and often prejudicial generalizations, to warrant stop and frisk. In the same discussion, officers that frisk contacts as a matter of “routine” are running way outside the guidelines of clearly established law.
However, when anonymous callers provide “specific” and “particular” information on a suspected criminal, especially when their information predicts future behavior observed through police investigation, that information provides the police enough reasonable suspicion to stop and investigate the target of the complaint. A frisk would still only be lawful if officers can articulate why they felt that particular suspect was armed.
The decision of Navarette v. California is another piece of the puzzle, but its picture provides a much clearer understanding of the legal minefield of reasonable suspicion stops and anonymous tips.
*** The review of www.casebriefs.com and www.patc.com in relation to the court cases reviewed here was very beneficial in the completion of this article.