Supreme Court to hear traffic stop case

The U.S. Supreme Court recently announced that it would hear a case regarding the use of anonymous tips of reckless driving by police to make arrests. The issue of whether police can use these sorts of tips without independent corroboration by police officers has divided state and federal courts.

The case before the Supreme Court involves two men - Lorenzo Prado Navarette and Jose Prado Navarette - who were traveling through northern California in a silver Ford pickup truck. The California Highway Patrol received an anonymous tip that the Navarettes' vehicle had run another car off the road. Although the police did not observe the reckless driving themselves, the tip identified the Navarettes' vehicle by license plate number, color and manufacturer. The police stopped the Navarettes based on the information they received from the anonymous source and, in the course of the stop, discovered multiple large bags of marijuana. The two men were arrested and later pleaded guilty to smuggling marijuana.

The Navarettes have since appealed their case on the grounds that their traffic stop violated their constitutional rights. Under previous rulings by the Supreme Court, anonymous tips, without independent corroboration by police, are not enough to justify a stop. The Court may use the Navarettes' case as an opportunity to explain whether anonymous tips about reckless or drunk driving require special procedures.

This particular issue is not a new one and some were expecting the Supreme Court to take it up soon. Several years ago, the Court declined to hear an appeal of a similar issue arising out of Virginia. In that case, police received an anonymous tip that a man who had too much to drink was behind the wheel of his car. Police stopped him without observing evidence of drunkenness themselves and the driver was convicted of DUI. He appealed his conviction, arguing that the stop was improper and the Virginia Supreme Court agreed with him. At the time that the Court declined to hear Virginia's appeal of this case, Chief Justice Roberts expressed his concern that a lack of clear guidance on the use of anonymous tips in reckless driving and DUI cases could make convictions more difficult for police.

The Supreme Court is expected to hear oral arguments in the Navarettes' case sometime in January of next year. It is unclear whether the justices are likely to find that officers' use of anonymous tips in these sorts of cases is improper.

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