A divided U.S. Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that police can pull a driver over based on an anonymous tip that he had forced another motorist off the road -- evidence, the court said, that he might be drunk and dangerous.
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In a case from Northern California, a divided U.S. Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that police can pull a driver over based on an anonymous tip that he had forced another motorist off the road -- evidence, the court said, that he might be drunk and dangerous.
The 5-4 ruling upheld the convictions of two brothers from Mendocino County whose pickup truck was stopped by the California Highway Patrol on state Highway 1 in August 2008 after another driver called 911 to report that the pickup had just run her off the road.
After following the truck for five minutes, an officer pulled the driver over, smelled marijuana, and found 30 pounds of the drug in the truck bed, the court said. The driver, Lorenzo Prado Navarette, and his brother and passenger, Jose, pleaded guilty to transporting marijuana and were sentenced to 90 days in jail. They appealed, claiming the officer had no legal grounds for the stop.
California courts upheld the convictions, but the Supreme Court granted review to address two issues: whether an anonymous, uncorroborated 911 call is reliable enough to justify a vehicle stop, and whether being forced off the road is a sign that the other driver poses an ongoing danger, allowing police to stop the vehicle without any other evidence of wrongdoing.
The majority, led by Justice Clarence Thomas, answered yes to both questions.
The caller's description of the pickup and its license number, her use of the emergency calling system, and the CHP's ability to locate the suspect vehicle 18 minutes after the 911 call were all indications that the information was reliable, Thomas said.
Running another vehicle off the road, he said, "suggests lane-positioning problems, decreased vigilance, impaired judgment," all signs of drunken driving.
Dissenters, led by Justice Antonin Scalia, said anonymous accusations are inherently doubtful, and the caller in this case gave no indication that the other driver was drunk.
"The truck might have swerved to avoid an animal, a pothole, or a jaywalking pedestrian," Scalia said. Even if the driver was acting recklessly or intentionally, he said, intoxication was an "unlikely reason," and far too improbable to justify a vehicle stop.
"Drunken driving is a serious matter, but so is the loss of our freedom to come and go as we please without police interference," said Scalia, joined by the more liberal Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. Thomas was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and fellow conservatives Anthony Kennedy and Samuel Alito, along with the more liberal Justice Stephen Breyer.
The defendants' lawyer, Paul Kleven, said the ruling makes it easier for anonymous tipsters to "call in and sic police on people they don't like."
Nick Pacilio, spokesman for California Attorney General Kamala Harris, whose office argued the case for the prosecution, said, "We are pleased with the court's ruling, which supports the hard work of law enforcement."
Bob Egelko is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: email@example.com Twitter: @egelko
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