Anonymous Tips Prompting Alabama Traffic Stops Weighed by U.S. Supreme Court

Countless Birmingham drug defense cases have been necessitated by the fact that police used informants to help further an investigation.

Courts in this matter have generally supported law enforcement use of information from informants, even when those individuals provided that information anonymously.

However, the courts have run into a tricky problem with this as it relates to traffic stops.

The law is clear that reasonable suspicion is required in order for a police officer to initiate a lawful traffic stop. It's a more relaxed standard than probable cause (which is required if the officer is seeking to make an arrest), but is generally accepted as being a suspicion based on specific and articulable facts (as opposed to merely a hunch).

The problem is whether the standard of reasonable suspicion is adequately met when a traffic stop is based on whole or in large part on an anonymous tip. When the source of the information is unverifiable, it leads to the greater potential for abuse.

The issue is slated to go before the U.S. Supreme Court early next year in the matter of Navarette v. California. The decision reached here has the potential to widely impact the way law enforcement is allowed to conduct criminal traffic stops.

The Navarette case first unfolded back in 2008, when a call came into a county 911 dispatch center from an anonymous caller, reporting that the driver of a pickup truck was operating the vehicle recklessly and had nearly run him off the road. The caller gave a distinct description of the offending vehicle, including the make, model and plate number, and also informed dispatch of the location of the incident and the general direction the vehicle was traveling.

Officers quickly responded to the area and found a truck matching that exact description. They followed that vehicle for a time (presumably in an attempt to establish greater probable cause aside from what the caller had indicated). However, the driver reportedly committed no traffic infraction during the time officers observed him. They decided to pull him over anyway.

Officers immediately noted the smell of marijuana. They then initiated a search of the vehicle, wherein they discovered a large quantity of marijuana and various paraphernalia. Both the driver and his passenger were arrested for violation of the state's drug laws.

However, upon appeal, the defendant argued that his conviction should be tossed on the basis that the circuit court should have granted a motion to suppress the evidence found as a result of the traffic stop, which he said was invalidated by the fact that officers lacked reasonable suspicion for the stop. Per the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine, anything that would have been discovered after that search (i.e., the marijuana) would have to be excluded as evidence, which would effectively destroy the state's case.

Previous case law (specifically Illinois v. Gates and Florida v. J.L). has held that law enforcement agencies need more than an anonymous tip that provided precise identifying details but lacked substantiated evidence of wrongdoing to establish reasonable suspicion.

There were some exceptions that courts have noted, such as when a report was made of an individual carrying a bomb. In those instances, the courts have held, police might lawfully stop a person because the public interest might outweigh the temporary loss of personal rights.

It's been on this basis in the past that officers have stopped people for drunk or reckless driving, where the information was provided via an anonymous tip. A reckless driver, they have reasoned, is like a bomb in terms of the imminent threat he or she poses to those around them.

However, whether this argument will stand remains to be seen.

If you have been arrested for a drug crime in Birmingham, contact Defense Attorney Steven Eversole at (866) 831-5292.