Under the U.S. Constitution, the 4th Amendment prevents police officers from unlawfully searching your person, car, or home. The cases that have formed the basis of “search and seizure law” have narrowly limited law enforcement stop and searches with probable cause. While the definition of “probable cause” has had to be interpreted by the Supreme Court in the past, a new ruling may give more rights to law enforcement officers. According to some critics, the new interpretation also could potentially open the door to abuse.
According to a recent Supreme Court ruling, police officers can now stop and search a driver based solely on an anonymous 911 tip. For drivers in Alabama and nationwide, this could mean a host of potential legal issues. Our Birmingham criminal defense attorneys are dedicated to protecting the rights of our clients and staying abreast of legal issues that impact civil rights in Alabama and nationwide. In the event of a 4th Amendment violation, our legal team is prepared to fight for our clients and to suppress any evidence that was illegally obtained.
The Supreme Court decision was based on a criminal conviction that developed after an anonymous tip. A driver in California called 911 to report a pickup truck that had allegedly run her off the road. The caller provided details including the make and model and a license plate. After the driver was stopped for suspected drunk driving, the police smelled marijuana, searched the vehicle and found 30 pounds of the drug. The driver was arrested and charged with serious drug crimes. According to his defense, the officers did not have reasonable suspicion to pull him over, therefore, the evidence obtained should be suppressed and the conviction overturned.
In ruling in favor of the prosecution, the Supreme Court gave police broad authority to rely on anonymous tips when stopping drivers. Though the court has long held that police can make stops based on anonymous tips, this case broadens the authority of the police to “infer” a reasonable belief that a driver was drunk, without their own authority. The ability to infer the truth of a caller creates a possibility for abuse of discretion when stopping and searching vehicles.
Justice Scalia wrote a derisive dissent, highlighting the potential for anonymous calls and police abuse of discretion. This could potentially create an incentive for false reports. The issue, according to Scalia, is not whether the caller provided sufficient details of an alleged accident or misconduct, but whether the details were true. He also pointed out that the officers followed the driver for five minutes without an indication of drunk or bad driving.
In the future, this ruling could create difficulties in challenging probable cause, as it gives police the authority to pull over any driver based on anonymous tip. Individuals who are pulled over and arrested for drunk driving or any suspected crime should consult with an experienced defense attorney as soon as possible. An experienced advocate can review the case presented against you and suppress any illegally obtained evidence.