Supreme Court Weakens 4th Amendment Traffic Stop Requirements

The U.S. Supreme Court today upheld a defendant’s conviction for possession with intent to deliver a substantial quantity of marijuana. At the heart of the case is whether the police lacked the probable cause necessary to conduct a traffic stop. During the traffic stop, the California Highway Patrol officers noted a strong odor of marijuana emanating from the truck, searched it, and found approximately 30 pounds of marijuana in the truck’s bed.

According to the police, they received a 911 call from an individual traveling south on Highway 1. The caller stated that she had just been run off the road by a silver, Ford F-150, which was traveling in the same direction as her. The California Highway Patrol responded, locating the truck roughly 18 miles further south on the highway. From the time the tipster called 911 to the time the CHP pulled the defendant over, less than 20 minutes had elapsed.

First, the Court’s 5-4 opinion was a very odd alliance of justices. Justice Thomas wrote the decision in which the Chief Justice, Justices Alito, Breyer, and Kennedy joined. Justice Scalia drafted the dissent in which Kagan, Sotomayor, and Ginsburg joined.

The case tested whether an anonymous tip, reported through the state’s 911 system, was sufficient to form the foundation of probable cause necessary to commence a traffic stop. The majority answered the question in the affirmative, noting that the caller provided a great degree of detail about the truck, including the make, model, license plate number, the direction of travel, and the severity of the legal infraction alleged: running a car off the road. According to the Court, this combination of information provided a sufficient “indicia of reliability” upon which the police could rely.

The “indicia of reliability” having been established, the CHP had the requisite probable cause to initiate the traffic stop. Once the traffic stop was properly initiated, the police could engage in whatever sensory perception (sight, smell, experiential observation, etc.) to further an investigation.

The dissenting opinion disagreed, stating that the majority’s opinion will undermine existing 4th Amendment jurisprudence, but elevating the extent to which law-enforcement can rely on a single, anonymous tip. The majority’s opinion, according to Justice Scalia, will vitiate the requirement that law enforcement obtain corroborating evidence prior to initiating a traffic stop. The dissent also challenged the majority’s perception as to the “indicia of reliability” on the basis that any person driving south on Highway 1 could have observed the vehicle and further challenging the preposition that a call to 911 has an enhanced degree of credibility as an “excited utterance.”

Generally, the majority’s opinion is troubling, principally due to law enforcement’s tendency to push the envelope with respect to traffic related investigatory stops. I concur with the dissent, that this case provides a weakening of existing standards. It provides law enforcement with a broader justification for commencing traffic stops, elevates the role of the “anonymous tip,” and detracts from the requirement that law enforcement obtain evidence corroborating the anonymous tip prior to an investigative detention.

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