It isn’t every day that a relatively minor pot bust case makes it all the way to the United States Supreme Court, but on Tuesday the highest court in the land heard and decided on just such a case. Obviously, the implications behind it were much larger than the measly four bags of weed confiscated during a California highway traffic stop way back in 2008.
On that day, six years ago, the California Highway Patrol responded to a 9-1-1 tip from an anonymous caller saying that a pickup truck was driving erratically and had run the caller’s vehicle off of the road. After tailing the suspect vehicle for over five minutes and several miles, the responding officers witnessed zero erratic or dangerous behavior from the driver of the truck. Still though, based on nothing more than that anonymous tip, they pulled the vehicle over, and subsequently discovered the four bags of weed inside.
Lorenzo and Jose Navarette, of Santa Maria, California, were arrested on the spot, but had brought their fight all the way to the nation’s capital this week, to throw themselves one last time at the mercy of the politically divided U.S. Supreme Court.
Unfortunately for the two brothers, and for anyone who truly believes that we are innocent until proven guilty in this country, yet another 5-4 split decision on Tuesday ruled that officers had every right to stop and search the Navarette’s vehicle, based on nothing more than the anonymous 9-1-1 call.
Writing for the majority in Tuesday’s decision, Justice Clarence Thomas pretty much Copy/Pasted the Appellate Court’s 2012 decision that basically said hey it’s a curvy road and the caller accurately described the truck in question, so therefore, it’s entirely plausible that the truck ran the caller off the road, and so the police had every right to stop the truck in question.
Interestingly, he also noted that the behavior described by the caller indicated drunk driving, which of course, the Navarettes were not accused or convicted of. He then spun that argument into an argument against “Intoxication” in general, which he used to then justify the officers’ actions in discovering the weed.
On the more liberal side of the bench, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elana Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor found an odd ally as their 4th vote in the normally pissy-pants conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, who provided a surprisingly razor-sharp dissent by waving the 4th Amendment of the Constitution back in the faces of his colleagues.
Throughout our country’s history, the 4th Amendment has asserted that law enforcement must corroborate all anonymous tips before acting upon them as evidence. According to Scalia, this latest ruling states that “so long as the caller identifies where the car is, anonymous claims of a single instance of possibly careless or reckless driving, called in to 911, will support a traffic stop. This is not my concept, and I am sure would not be the Framers’, of a people secure from unreasonable searches and seizures,” he continued. “I would reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeal of California.”
Scalia didn’t stop there, however, blasting both the danger in accepting anonymous tips as facts, and the absurd conclusion that temporary erratic driving automatically means that the driver is intoxicated in some way.
Maybe the defendant did run Anonymous Driver X off the road, but as Scalia logically notes, the driver’s distraction could have been caused by any number of otherwise innocent occurrences, like legal use of a hands-free phone, or even road-rage over a liberal bumper sticker (seriously).
He flipped the Court’s decision on its head, saying, “I fail to see how reasonable suspicion of a discrete instance of irregular or hazardous driving generates a reasonable suspicion of ongoing intoxicated driving. What proportion of the hundreds of thousands – perhaps millions – of careless, reckless, or intentional traffic violations committed each day is attributable to drunken drivers? I say 0.1 percent. I have no basis for that except my own guesswork. But unless the court has some basis in reality to believe that the proportion is many orders of magnitude above that – say 1in 10 or at least 1 in 20 – it has no grounds for its unsupported assertion that the tipster’s report in this case gave rise to a reasonable suspicion of drunken driving.”
Scalia reiterated the fact that the responding officer followed the suspect vehicle for over five minutes without witnessing any erratic behavior whatsoever.
In other words, he and three of his colleagues on the Supreme Court called bullshit on the others, but it was in vain as the decision stood at 5-4, and American citizens’ search & seizure rights eroded a bit further.
Scalia ended his dissent with a cable-news -worthy pun and one last jab at the decision, stating, “The court’s opinion serves up a freedom-destroying cocktail consisting of two parts patent falsity: (1) that anonymous 911 reports of traffic violations are reliable so long as they correctly identify a car and its location, and (2) that a single instance of careless or reckless driving necessarily supports a reasonable suspicion of drunkenness.”
Man, when even the uber-Right Wing Justice Antonin Scalia is trying to wrap the constitution around those accused of carrying bags of weed, maybe it’s time the entire system finally gets a second look.