What do officers need in order to initiate a stop of a motor vehicle? It
is commonly known that they need to observe a car committing a traffic
violation, or driving in a suspicious manner. Without these observations,
a stop could be considered as violating the Fourth Amendment's protections
against unreasonable searches and seizures.
A case emanating from the state of California could change this notion.
The U.S. Supreme Court will hear a case where atraffic stop (and subsequent arrest) is being challenged because the arresting officers
did not actually see the car driving recklessly before stopping it.
Instead, dispatchers for the California Highway Patrol (CHP) received an
anonymous tip that a silver Ford F150 truck was driving erratically, and
had run another driver off the road. They communicated the description
to officers in the vicinity, who saw the truck and stopped it. When the
officers approached the vehicle, they smelled marijuana, which they claim
gave them probable cause to search the truck. They found several bags
of the drug, and arrested the driver and his passenger on suspicion of
The two arrestees pled guilty, then appealed; claiming that the stop and
subsequent arrest violated their Fourth Amendment rights since the officers
did not observe the alleged violations first hand, and because anonymous
tips are usually insufficient to search or detain someone.
The case may have additional implications for police observations such
as seatbelt violations, cell phone infractions and red light violations.
It is worth noting that the Court previously declined to hear a similar
case from Virginia after the state supreme court reversed a conviction
where an anonymous tip alerted police to a drunk driver.
Court: Is anonymous tip enough for traffic stop?, October 1, 2013