Court: Anonymous 911 Tips Don’t Violate Unreasonable Search or Seizure

An April ruling from the U.S. Supreme could change how drivers are pulled over. Although the decision was close, the court ruled 5 to 4 that law enforcement officers are allowed to pull over drivers based on anonymous tips they receive from phone calls – even if they don’t observe suspicious driving themselves.

The court’s majority ruled in Navarette V. California that such enforcement doesn’t amount to unreasonable search or seizure, and that anonymous 911 tipsters can be considered legitimate witnesses.

It was previously standard policy that police couldn’t rely on anonymous tips alone as a reason to pull someone over. According to an NPR report, when writing for the majority opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas noted that 911 calls have “some features that allow for identifying and tracking callers” – something that wouldn’t make such tips entirely anonymous. 

The justices’ consideration of the issue centered around a 2008 case in which a person called police to report a swerving vehicle that had run their car off the road. The caller didn’t provide his or her own identity, but gave a detailed description of the suspect’s vehicle along with the license plate number. From that information, police were able to locate the vehicle and pull it over. The result? They discovered 30 pounds of marijuana in the truck’s bed.

Two men in the truck were charged with marijuana trafficking. They later appealed the charge, arguing that the search of their vehicle had violated their 4th Amendment rights and that the search was “unreasonable” because the tipster wasn’t credible due to anonymity.

Dissenting from the court’s approval was Justice Antonin Scalia who referred to the ruling as a “freedom-destroying cocktail,” according to NPR. Scalia also suggested that the approval could push anonymous tipsters to report vehicles on false pretenses.

Although the case didn’t appear to involve alcohol, it could have ramifications in terms of how those suspected of reckless and drunk driving are pulled over.