Anonymous Tip to 911: Enough to reasonably stop a vehicle?

In an effort to increase public safety, questions have been raised as to whether or not an anonymous tip can be enough evidence to supply an officer with reasonable suspicion to stop a vehicle.

Until recently, the answer to that question was no. In previous cases held by the North Carolina Supreme Court, as well as the United States Supreme Court, an anonymous tip alone rarely provides enough reason to stop a vehicle. The tip can serve to identify suspicious activity from a specifc car model and location. The rules then require officers to independently observe criminal activity.

Why is this now an issue?

In the recent case of Navarette v. California, 911 received a call reporting the individual had just been run off the road by a pickup truck. An officer quickly responded, located the pickup truck, and stopped its driver without independently verifying any bad driving.

Ultimately, the officer found 30 pounds of marijuana in the truck and the driver was convicted of trafficking in marijuana. The driver appealed his conviction all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and previous verdict was upheld.

What the Court Reasoned:

In its holding, the Court reasoned the following:

  • By reporting she had been run off the road, the anonymous caller is a knowledgeable eyewitness
  • The short time between the incident and the call to 911 suggested she had little time to fabricate the report
  • A reasonable caller would hesitate before falsely reporting an incident to 911
  • Since the caller reported that she had been run off the road, the tip also created reasonable suspicion of DWI

What the Defendant Claimed:

The officer violated the 4th Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches, when he stopped and detained the vehicle and its occupants. The defendant claimed that the anonymous tip did not demonstrate enough reliability to investigate.

The 4th Amendment – “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

What the Court Decided:

In a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court ruled that an anonymous tip to 911 is enough reason to stop a vehicle. Opposing opinions called the holding a “freedom-destroying cocktail” and stated that “after [the court’s] opinion, all of us on the road, not just drug dealers, are at the risk of having our freedom of movement curtailed on suspicion of drunkenness, based on a phone tip, true or false, or a single instance of careless driving.”

Although the States must follow the decisions of the Supreme Court, each State is free to give their citizens more protection. It remains to be seen if the North Carolina Supreme Court will lower our level of protection against unreasonable searches and seizures, as they did in the Navarette v. California case.