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Media > Newsletters > Law Enforcement Bulletin > May 2014 > Informants (Anonymous Tips): Navarette v. California

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Informants (Anonymous Tips): Navarette v. California

Question: Can you stop a vehicle based on an anonymous tip even though you personally did not see evidence of a crime?
Quick Answer: Yes, but only when the tip, based on the detail of the information and surrounding circumstances, is credible.

Prado Navarette v. California, U.S. Supreme Court, April 22, 2014
Facts: A 911 dispatcher received a tip from an anonymous caller who reported that a pickup truck had just run her vehicle off the road. The caller gave the license plate number, the direction the truck was traveling, and nearest highway mile marker. Two California Highway Patrol officers found the truck 20 miles down the road and followed it for 5 minutes. The officers did not see the driver make a single driving error. Still, they stopped the truck. When they approached the truck, the officers smelled marijuana. The patrolmen found 30 pounds of marijuana in the bed of the truck. The driver and passenger argued that the traffic stop violated their Fourth Amendment rights because it was based solely on an anonymous tip and not any personal observations by the officers. The U.S. Supreme Court found in a 5-4 decision that the search was reasonable.
Importance: Tips from informants do not create the reasonable suspicion required for a stop unless they are credible. Usually, anonymous tips are not credible on their own, so they require an officer’s personal observation of criminal behavior before there is reasonable suspicion to stop a car. However, sometimes — such as in this case — the circumstances surrounding the tip are enough to make it creditable even though the officers do not personally witness evidence of a crime. In Prado Navarette , the caller provided details about the make, model, color, and license plate of the vehicle (which the officers were able to confirm), the call was made to 911 (which could subject the caller to prosecution if she made a false report), and the report came shortly after the incident occurred (making it less likely to be preplanned). Because the tip suggested the driver was impaired, the court believed that when combined with the specific facts just listed, the officers had reasonable suspicion to stop the truck.
Keep in Mind: Before this case, the rule was pretty simple: All anonymous tips must be corroborated by police observation, because a person’s liberty shouldn’t be invaded based on an anonymous tip. In this case, the court looked at several factors to determine that the tip was credible. These factors are not hard or fast rules, and they may change depending on the circumstances of each case. So in practice, the best thing to do is to corroborate all tips. If you don’t, you may run the risk of the judge telling you the surrounding circumstances were not enough to make the tip reliable, and the evidence will be thrown out.    
More on Informants
Sit tight, I’m going to take a look. You get a tip from a confidential informant you’ve successfully worked with in the past. Your CI gives you a license plate number and description of a car in which the driver has illegal firearms. You stop the vehicle for an unlit rear license plate. Based on the tip, you and your partner approach the car with guns drawn. You see the driver reach down, so you order him and his passenger out of the car. You search the car for weapons and find a bag of cocaine under the driver’s floor mat. Was the search appropriate based on the information provided by the informant? Yes, in Jones the court held that the tip was from a known, credible informant and created a reasonable suspicion that the car contained weapons. The officers were justified in searching. Ohio v. Jones, First Appellate District, March 26, 2014. Special Note: This case is different from Prado Navarette for two reasons: 1) the tip came from a known, credible informant rather than an anonymous tipster, and 2) the officers actually saw the illegal activity that was the basis for the stop. For that reason, the court did not have to consider the reliability of the tip.
This tip passes the smell test. You receive a tip from an anonymous citizen claiming that a neighbor is growing pot in his house. You drive to the address and smell marijuana outside the garage. The resident has a lengthy criminal history, and the house is using significantly more electricity than its neighbors. You submit an affidavit describing these facts and stating that, based on your experience, you believe a grow operation is taking place. A judge issues a warrant to search the house. Does the affidavit support the warrant even though the information was all gathered as a result of an anonymous tip? Yes, said the 10th District in Thomas. According to the court, the marijuana odor, extreme kilowatt usage, and the resident’s prior criminal history all corroborated the anonymous tip, confirming its credibility. Ohio v. Thomas, Tenth Appellate District, April 8, 2014. Special Note: This case is different from Prado Navarette because the tip was corroborated by the smell of the marijuana, research of the electrical usage, and officers’ knowledge of the home’s history. Remember, Prado Navarette deals with anonymous tips that may not need additional corroboration.