Court Issue: When Can Anonymous Tips Justify Stopping, Searching Vehicles?


A 2008, drug bust along the Northern California coast prompted Supreme Court scrutiny yesterday into the proper use of anonymous tips, McClatchy Newspapers report. Alerted by a call about a reckless driver, California Highway Patrol officers stopped a pickup, finding a driver, a passenger and, eventually, four odoriferous bags stuffed with 30 pounds of marijuana. The routine arrest has triggered a national controversy over whether the anonymous tip was sufficient evidence to justify stopping and searching the truck.

During yesterday’s argument, Supreme Court justices sounded ambivalent about the answer. On the one hand, conservatives and liberals alike suggested public safety stops make sense on roads where drivers have necessarily given up some privacy. “In a context where we have approved sobriety checkpoints, why should we get bent out of shape over this?” asked Justice Elena Kagan. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Antonin Scalia added escalating examples that included tips about small explosives, kidnapped children and an atomic bomb aimed at the heart of Los Angeles, all in an effort to see where legal lines might be drawn. In a sign of the case's complexity, some of the same justices who sounded sympathetic to police searches in order to protect the public raised equally pointed questions about limiting such searches. Roberts raised the possibility of malicious tipsters spreading false information, while several wondered how serious a tip needs to be before being acted upon.

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