Wednesday, April 23, 2014

SCOTUS has one more for the road

Lorenzo and Jose Navarette were minding their own business driving a truck down the highway with 30 pounds of marijuana in the bed of the truck. At some point an anonymous driver called 911 and reported that the Navarette's truck had almost run her off the road. The 911  message was relayed to sheriff's deputies in Humboldt County who stopped the truck - after following it for some five minutes without observing any suspicious driving behavior.

The officers, naturally suspecting that Mr. Navarette was driving while intoxicated in the middle of the afternoon detained the brothers so they could conduct a DWI investigation. During the course of the investigation they came across the stash of weed in the back of the truck. The stop quickly changed course from a DWI investigation into a felony dope investigation.

At trial the court denied the Navarette's motion to suppress the marijuana and the brothers pled guilty and received 90 days in jail plus three years probation.

Now let's make certain we have a couple of the pertinent facts straight. First, the motorist who called 911 never left her name. Second, the anonymous driver never said she thought Mr. Navarette was intoxicated - only that he almost ran his or her car off the road.

On appeal the appellate court determined that there was sufficient corroboration in the fact that the police located the truck near the area the anonymous caller told them it was and that the anonymous caller got the license plate number correct. The appellate court then made the leap of logic that the driving behavior described by the unidentified 911 caller rose to the level of reasonable suspicion.

Of course we know what really drove the appellate court's decision-making process: the defendants had dark skin, funny names and a whole lot of weed in the truck. It was yet another example of courts making rulings based on the outcome and not the process.

Yesterday the US Supreme Court handed down its opinion in Navarette v. California, 572 US _____ (2014). And, not surprisingly, held that the stop met constitutional muster because the information provided by a caller who remains nameless was somehow corroborated when the officer saw the truck on the highway and because the driving behavior just screamed out that Mr. Navarette was intoxicated.

The Court went on to say that the fact that the call was made so near the time of the alleged driving behavior (according to the unnamed motorist) indicated that our Friend With No Name hadn't had sufficient time to make up the story. It just had to be true.

The decision is yet another broadside blow to what remains of the Fourth Amendment. It is also part of a line of cases that make a mockery out of a defendant's right to confront the witnesses against him. When was Mr. Navarette permitted to cross-examine the nameless caller? When was he allowed to probe for reasons the driver might make up, or exaggerate, an incident on the road? The officer certainly couldn't testify as to what driving behavior he witnessed that made it apparent that Mr. Navarette was intoxicated.

Justice Antonin Scalia summed it up best in his vigorous dissent:
The Court’s opinion serves up a freedom-destroying cocktail consisting of two parts patent falsity: (1) that anonymous 911 reports of traffic violations are reliable so long as they correctly identify a car and its location, and (2) that a single instance of careless or reckless driving necessarily supports a reasonable suspicion of drunken­ness. All the malevolent 911 caller need do is assert a traffic violation, and the targeted car will be stopped, forcibly if necessary, by the police. If the driver turns out not to be drunk (which will almost always be the case), the caller need fear no consequences, even if 911 knows his identity. After all, he never alleged drunkenness, but merely called in a traffic violation—and on that point hisword is as good as his victim’s. 

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