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Under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, an anonymous tip can provide the basis for an investigatory stop by law enforcement when the tip, as corroborated by independent police work, exhibits sufficient indicia of reliability to furnish police with a reasonable suspicion that the defendant is engaged in criminal activity. For example, in the DUI context, an anonymous tipster can call police and say a blue truck is weaving all over the road and almost struck a guardrail. However, this anonymous tip is not enough for the police to stop the vehicle. In order for police to develop reasonable suspicion for the stop, the officer must independently observe the driver’s action, identify possible signs of impairment (weaving, swerving, stopping problems, almost striking objects, etc.), and only then stop the vehicle. In other words, an officer cannot rely solely on an anonymous tipster’s information to stop a vehicle. The officer must personally observe indicia of impairment himself.

There is good reason for this rule. Anonymous informants cannot be held responsible for false claims of illegal activity and are therefore free to lie without fear of punishment, putting innocent people at risk of unreasonable, intrusive searches and seizures. To protect the Fourth Amendment rights of those people, the Court has held that anonymous tips cannot give rise to the level of the reasonable suspicion necessary to justify a stop unless officers are able to corroborate those tips. Alabama v. White, 496 U.S. 325 (1990).

However, all this may soon change. The United States Supreme Court is presently considering a case that may do away altogether with the necessity of independent officer corroboration. In Navarette v. California, Case No. No. 12-9490 (petition for certiorari granted Oct. 1, 2013), the Supreme Court will consider the following question:

Whether the Fourth Amendment requires an officer who receives an anonymous tip regarding a drunken or reckless driver to corroborate dangerous driving before stopping the vehicle.

If the Court rules that the Fourth Amendment does not require independent corroboration, a whole host of problems may result. For example, anyone with a cell phone who wants to harass someone else can simply call in an anonymous tip that a person is driving erratically or otherwise appears to be impaired and subject that person to an intrusive, embarrassing stop of the person’s vehicle and all of its occupants. The officer need not observe any signs of impairment himself but may simply stop the vehicle based only on the statement of an anonymous person who may have a malicious motive. As anyone can readily see, all sorts of havoc can be wrought by a disgruntled ex-lover or someone else who holds a grudge. We will see whether the Supreme Court decides to keep the officer-corroboration requirement intact or continues to vitiate our Fourth Amendment protections yet again.