An Officer on Every Street Corner
On a recent wintery January day, the United States Supreme Court heard arguments in a case that began far from Washington, D.C.; in fact, it began right here in Mendocino County.
The issue being considered by Supreme Court justices was whether two brothers’ Fourth Amendment search and seizure rights were violated.
The brothers were pulled over by the California Highway Patrol after an anonymous report of reckless driving. When the car was pulled over, the CHP officers smelled a strong odor of marijuana coming from the back of the truck. A search of the truck bed revealed four large bags of marijuana.
The brothers were arrested and convicted of possessing and transporting the marijuana, and later appealed their conviction, saying their rights had been violated. The issue before the court is whether the brothers should have been stopped by the CHP officers in the first place.
In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that, “Unlike a tip from a known informant whose reputation can be assessed and who can be held responsible if [their] allegations turn out to be fabricated, an anonymous tip alone seldom demonstrates the informant’s basis of knowledge or veracity.”
To meet a reasonable standard for use by law enforcement, the court said that anonymous tips must be “suitably corroborated.”
In other words, a law enforcement officer – along with an anonymous tip – must see something reasonably suspicious to corroborate the information obtained through the anonymous tip before they can stop someone.
The Court did say that under certain risky circumstances, the danger of a situation might justify a lack of corroboration of illegal activity.
In the case of the two brothers, the CHP officers had the color and description of the vehicle, a silver Ford F-150, and its exact vehicle license plate number. The CHP officers were advised that the vehicle was driving erratically and had tried to run another vehicle off the road.
The brothers’ attorneys argued that when the CHP officers found the vehicle, they did not see erratic or reckless driving, only a match to the vehicle description and license plate information. They said that the officers violated the brothers’ Constitutional rights prohibiting unlawful search and seizure by stopping the vehicle without corroborating evidence.
The CHP officers’ attorneys argued that the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in 2000 allows officers to make a stop if dangerous activity is involved. The two brothers were reported to be driving recklessly, which justified the lack of corroborating information.
The question for the Supreme Court justices is this: were the CHP officers right to stop the vehicle based on an anonymous tip about reckless driving, or did the officers conduct an unlawful search, thus violating the brothers’ rights?
What would you have done?
Each day, officers must apply a complex set of laws, policies, and procedures as they perform their duties. This takes a lot of preparation, so we work hard to make sure our officers are ready to make these difficult decisions.
A new officer spends at least six intensive months at the police academy learning the law, and another three months in a field-training program gaining experience in learning to apply the law. After this intensive training period, new officers are matched with more experienced officers to hone the skill of relating these complex laws, policies, and procedures to everyday situations.
I believe it takes about five years on the job until an officer is seasoned enough to instantly understand and apply our complex laws, regulations, and procedures to everyday, ever-changing, real-life situations.
This U.S. Supreme Court case (Navarette v. California) will not be decided until June of 2014, and while we won’t know for a while if the actions of the CHP officers were correct, I agree with the CHP officers’ attorneys that the anonymous information they received about a reckless vehicle may have prevented a far more harmful situation.
The attorneys representing the CHP officers argued that acting on anonymous tips of reckless driving outweighs the intrusion of a traffic stop; that these anonymous tips help officers detect drunk drivers and other more dangerous types of crimes that occur.
I think detecting these types of crimes protects us all.
While it isn’t possible to have a police officer on every street corner, having civilians who are willing to report crimes can make it feel as though we do. In fact, having the help of people willing to report a crime or suspicious behavior can often be the difference between solving a crime having it remain unsolved.
Sometimes those who are willing to report suspicious activity would rather not share their identity. Maybe they’re reporting on a friend or relative who needs to stop a destructive behavior, or a neighborhood problem that needs some attention from law enforcement. Regardless of the reason, understandably, sometimes people who report crimes want to remain anonymous.
While we appreciate being able to follow up with people who share tips about illegal activity, we completely understand that identifying themselves may put them at risk. We would rather have an anonymous tip than no tip, because this information may be the crucial difference in solving a crime, in preventing a dangerous activity from taking place, in protecting innocent people.
While the Supreme Court is still working out the rules law enforcement officers must follow in applying anonymous tips, everyone should know that anonymous tips really do help us solve and prevent crimes. And if there is anything we want more of, it is ways to prevent crimes from occurring – from people being hurt.
At the Ukiah Police Department you can anonymously report a crime in a number of ways. On our website–www.ukiahpolice.com–you can link to our Citizen’s Online Reporting System where you can provide anonymous tips. You can also receive crime and community notifications and send your tips to our department through the www.Nixle.com program. If you are comfortable calling, you can call our dispatchers at 707-463-6262 and they will help you provide us with anonymous information.
If you don’t mind sharing your identity, you can text TIP UKIAHPOLICE followed by your message to 888777. (Tip Information Link)
As always, our mission at UPD is simple: to make Ukiah as safe as possible. If you have any suggestions or comments about how we can improve, please feel free to call me, complete our online survey, or leave a crime tip on our website: www.ukiahpolice.com.