US Supreme Court Decision Has Important Implications for New Jersey Criminal Defense Attorneys in Driving Under the Influence and Narcotics Cases

New Jersey Criminal Lawyers Schwartz Posnock

On January 21, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument in Naverette v. California, a case that is potentially significant to all New Jersey criminal defense lawyers who represent clients in driving under the influence cases, and in possession of drugs / narcotics cases.

The question before the Court was the authority of police to follow up on an anonymous tip about an unsafe driver.

In 2008, a California State Highway Patrol (“CHiPs”) dispatcher got a telephone call from a dispatcher in an adjoining county, saying that a 911 caller reported that he had just been run off the road by a pickup truck. The caller identified the truck, the license number, and where the incident had allegedly occurred.
A police “be on the lookout” (“BOLO”) radio message was broadcast advising all units of the incident. A state police officer heard the broadcast and took up the pursuit. Soon, another officer joined in the pursuit. They spotted the pickup truck and pulled it over. Lorenzo Navarette was the driver. His brother Jose was the passenger.
The officers searched the truck, smelling marijuana. They found four large, closed bags of marijuana in the truck bed. The brothers were charged with illegal transport and illegal possession for transport. They were convicted of possession of marijuana.
The California appellate court said that the 911 caller’s tip was sufficient to permit the police to make the car stop, especially since the caller had reported a dangerous situation that required a quick response. The officers, it added, corroborated the details about the truck and its license number given by the caller, even though the police themselves saw nothing illegal.
The case has proceeded through the lower courts to the Supreme Court on the legal premise that the tip was anonymous.
The question for the Supreme Court is whether the police needed corroboration of the information given by the anonymous 911 caller. For example, should the law require that the police actually observe a traffic violation being committed by the driver of the pickup truck, in order to have legal grounds to justify the stop? It is not clear that the police are free to act on such a tip, when they do not themselves see criminal conduct occurring. In 2000, the Supreme Court raised doubts about that authority, because of uncertainty about the reliability of anonymous tips.

The Navarette brothers rely on the Supreme Court’s 2000 decision in the case of Florida v. J.L., which held that police may not stop a person on the street for questioning based only on an anonymous tip identifying a particular individual and relaying word that the person had a gun. The Court held, in Florida v. J.L., that simple identification of an individual and an unexplained report of a gun do not make such a tip sufficiently reliable, and that it would not create a firearms exception to its requirement that police must corroborate a tip before acting on it. Just as the Supreme Court in Florida v. J.L. rejected a “firearms exception” to the need for police to have support for a tipster’s story, the Navarettes argued that the Court should now decline to adopt a reckless driving exception to that requirement. There is no real distinction, they will argue, between a tip about a gun and a tip about reckless driving.

The outcome of this case could have significant impact on state and federal law enforcement investigators in New Jersey. If the Supreme Court is consistent in its rulings, there will be no justification for a car stop without independent corroboration by a police officer. On the other hand, if the Court rules that no corroboration is required, then the rulings of the New Jersey Supreme Court are even more important on this issue.

At Schwartz & Posnock, we monitor each criminal law decision from the United States Supreme Court in order to defend you to the fullest extent. If you have a criminal charge in the Municipal Courts, State Courts, or Federal Courts, call the experienced criminal defense attorneys of Schwartz & Posnock to schedule a consultation in our Essex County (Livingston), Middlesex County (East Brunswick), Monmouth County (Eatontown), or Union County (Linden) offices.

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