Home / General / Today In the War on (Some Classes of People Who Use Some) Drugs v. The Fourth Amendment

Today In the War on (Some Classes of People Who Use Some) Drugs v. The Fourth Amendment

Comments
/
/
/
969 Views

Today, a bare majority of the Court upheld the constitutionality of a search that stopped a truck and found 30 pounds of marijuana. The sole basis for the search was the uncorroborated tip of an anonymous informant. That sentence is nearly sufficient in itself to refute the majority’s case, but Breyer and (somewhat more surprisingly, Thomas, who spoke for the Court) joined the Court’s three consistent opponents of the Fourth Amendment to uphold the search. Scalia dissented for Ginsburg, Kagan and Sotomayor.

There’s really not much I can add to the Scalia dissent, which demolishes the majority and leaves nothing standing. There is one paragraph I’d like to highlight, however. This is a little different than the typical drug case in that the possibility of impaired driving presents a immediate potential public safety risk that someone possessing drugs in their apartment does not. The police certainly do have the leeway to conduct traffic stops if they observe someone driving recklessly, and if they’re altered to reckless driving by even an uncorroborated informant, that’s usually OK. In this case, however, the police had nothing resembling reliable evidence of impaired driving either coming or going:

It gets worse. Not only, it turns out, did the police have no good reason at first to believe that Lorenzo was driving drunk, they had very good reason at last to know that he was not. The Court concludes that the tip, plus confirmation of the truck’s location, produced reasonable suspicion that the truck not only had been but still was barreling dangerously and drunkenly down Highway 1. Ante, at 8–10. In fact, alas, it was not, and the officers knew it. They followed the truck for five minutes, presumably to see if it was being operated recklessly. And that was good police work. While the anonymous tip was not enough to support a stop for drunken driving under Terry v. Ohio, it was surely enough to counsel observation of the truck to see if it was driven by a drunken driver. But the pesky little detail left out of the Court’s reasonable-suspicion equation is that, for the five minutes that the truck was being followed (five minutes is a long time), Lorenzo’s driving was irreproachable. Had the officers witnessed the petitioners violate a single traffic law, they would have had cause to stop the truck, and this case would not be before us. And not only was the driving irreproachable, but the State offers no evidence to suggest that the petitioners even did anything suspicious, such as suddenly slowing down, pulling off to the side of the road, or turning somewhere to see whether they were being followed. Consequently, the tip’s suggestion of ongoing drunken driving (if it could be deemed to suggest that) not only went uncorroborated; it was affirmatively undermined. [Some cites omitted]

That should settle it. Even under the probably-too-forgiving standards of Terry and its progeny, there was no “reasonable suspicion,” and the search is therefore unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment and the evidence collected should be suppressed. Scalia again:

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. All the malevolent 911 caller need do is assert a traffic violation, and the targeted car will be stopped, forcibly if necessary, by the police. If the driver turns out not to be drunk (which will almost always be the case), the caller need fear no consequences, even if 911 knows his identity. After all, he never alleged drunkenness, but merely called in a traffic violation—and on that point his word is as good as his victim’s.

Drunken driving is a serious matter, but so is the loss of our freedom to come and go as we please without police interference. To prevent and detect murder we do not allow searches without probable cause or targeted Terry stops without reasonable suspicion. We should not do so for drunken driving either. After today’s opinion all of us on the road, and not just drug dealers, are at risk of having our freedom of movement curtailed on suspicion of drunkenness, based upon a phone tip, true or false, of a single instance of careless driving. I respectfully dissent.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • Linkedin
  • Pinterest
It is main inner container footer text