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D.C. Traffic Stops on Anonymous Tips: Lawfulness Questionable

by | Dec 11, 2013

Anytime a police officer seeks to initiate a D.C. traffic stop, he or she is required under the Fourth Amendment to have reasonable suspicion of possible criminal activity.

If he or she wants to make an arrest, he or she must be able to establish probable cause.

In most cases, traffic stops are based on the observations of the arresting officer at the time of the incident. However, in this ever-evolving information age, anyone can quickly and easily provide anonymous tips to police agencies, without ever worrying that they may be held accountable if their information doesn’t turn out to be true.

Police agencies may view the increase in anonymous reporting an advantage to their profession, another tool in the toolbox. However, in Navarette v. California, there is concern that law enforcement may be using these tips to sidestep the Fourth Amendment. The case is slated to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court early next year.

The outcome of that case could have a profound impact on the way we approach our D.C. DUI defense strategy in cases where anonymous tips are the source of police involvement.

While police detectives have long relied on known informants to help them investigate criminal activities, they had the benefit of analyzing the credibility of those individuals based on their track record, so to speak. They could weigh their motives, their own prior criminal history, their propensity to make false allegations, etc. The same can’t be said for those who provide information to police anonymously.

Still, the U.S. Supreme Court has generally held that the tips of anonymous informants can legally be used in helping to substantiate both reasonable suspicion and probable cause (see Illinois v. Gates and Alabama v. White).

However, the question that arises in the Navarette case is to what degree an anonymous tip can help establish reasonable suspicion prior to a traffic stop.

In this case, a police dispatcher received a tip from an anonymous party, indicating that he had been run off the road by a reckless driver. The informant provided the make, model and plate number of the vehicle in question, as well as the general timing of the encounter and the direction in which the vehicle was traveling.

As a result, a number of police officers responded, found the driver in question, followed him for several minutes and then pulled over the driver and his passenger. Police reportedly smelled marijuana, initiated a search of the vehicle and discovered a large quantity of the drug. The driver and his passenger/brother were arrested for trafficking the drug.

Although the pair pleaded guilty, they had also moved to suppress evidence of the marijuana found in the car on the grounds that the stop was conducted on the basis of anonymous tip, and therefore without reasonable suspicion. Per the “fruit of the poisonous tree” doctrine, this would have made all other evidence uncovered thereafter inadmissible in court.

However, their motion to suppress was denied, leading them to both plead guilty.

What is interesting about the case is that the officers did not simply pull the driver over as soon as they saw him. They followed him for several minutes, attempting to see whether they could observe reckless driving first-hand. However, the driver reportedly operated the vehicle carefully during the time officers were following him. Police pulled him over anyway.

This may be problematic for the police in that if they argue that they were responding to a potential life-threatening emergency (which reckless driving could  be), why would they not immediately act to stop him?

Courts have generally held that an officer needs more than an anonymous tip – even if it does contain precise identifying information – to justify a traffic stop.

If you are facing DUI charges in D.C., contact the Scrofano Law, PC at 202-765-3175.