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A Lower Bar on Reasonable Suspicion for Traffic Stops


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In Navarette v. California, the Supreme Court of the United States has handed down a decision that lowers the bar on the reliability of evidence necessary for police to pull a person over for a traffic stop.  In the majority opinion, the Supreme Court held that anonymous 911 tips alone are enough to create 'reasonable suspicion' for traffic stops.

What's Wrong With This Picture?

The fact that a traffic stop even occurred.

In Navarette, the majority opinion reasoned that the anonymous 911 tip was sufficiently reliable to justify the traffic stop because the facts - a specific vehicle description coupled with a report of it running another vehicle off the road - created 'reasonable suspicion' that the driver of the suspect vehicle may be DUI.

'Reasonable suspicion' requires more than a 'hunch.'  Instead, 'reasonable suspicion' exists when a police officer has "a particularized and objective for suspecting a particular person stopped of criminal activity...based upon the totality of the circumstances -- the whole picture."  U.S. v. Cortez.

However, aside from a substantial, but single, instance of erratic driving, there was no evidence that the driver of the suspect vehicle was under the influence of alcohol.  No observations of the presence or consumption of alcohol.  No evidence that the vehicle had pulled out of a business or even area selling alcohol.  No evidence of sustained, unsafe and erratic driving.

In fact, after the traffic stop for suspicion of Driving Under the Influence occurred, no evidence of drunk driving was found.  Instead, after observing a strong odor of marijuana during their roadside investigation, the police discovered 30 pounds of marijuana in the bed of the truck.  The defendant was then charged with drug trafficking.

The Case for a Pennsylvania Distinction

As a general rule, the Supreme Court of the United States sets the precedent or defines the laws on both the state and federal level as our highest court.

However, the decisions made by our nation's Supreme Court are decided under the United States Constitution.  In matters of searches and seizures, like this case, the decision is made based upon the Fourth Amendment.  These decisions set the minimum standard - or bar - for our freedoms.  Thus, under respective state constitutions, the people can be granted greater freedoms and protections from government intrusions.

This is an important distinction for Pennsylvania citizens.

The primary purpose of the Fourth Amendment is to deter police misconduct.  Meanwhile, among the 'twin aims' of the Pennsylvania Constitution's right against unreasonable searches and seizures is "the safeguarding of [the individual's right to] privacy."  Commonwealth v. Edmunds.

Arguably the primary purpose of the Fourth Amendment lowers the bar on the inidicia of reliability needed for anonymous tips when compared to the Pennsylvania Constitution.  

Assuming that the prosecution can produce some evidence of an anonymous tip that can be documented by 911 records as separate and distinct from law enforcement, the risks of police misconduct is reduced, reliability enhanced, and the priminary purpose of the Fourth Amendment is upheld.  

However, the same evidence does not sufficiently safeguard the privacy interests of individual citizens, fails to meet the aim of the Pennsylvania Constitution, and, thus, offers reduced reliability requiring independent corroboration of the tip prior to the stop.

Your Defense May Start With the Stop

When you have been accused of a crime resulting from a traffic stop, your first line of defense may start with that stop.

DUI.  Drug Possession.  Possession With Intent to Deliver Drugs.  Unlawful Possession of a Firearm.  All or none of the above.

It doesn't matter.

But, if you have been charged with any crime, you should not delay in contacting an experienced PA Criminal Defense Lawyer because the timing of representation does matter and it could impact the outcome of your case.  

The Preliminary Hearing will be your first and best opportunity to leverage and build a record of testimony to challenge a potentially illegal traffic stop.

Contact Shawn Curry Law today.

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