The Power of Anonymous Tips to 911

What if someone—anyone—had the power to call the police and have you arrested without ever having to show their face in court? What if they didn't even have to give their name?

Normally, in order for police to pull over a car, they must observe something which gives them reasonable, articulable suspicious a crime has taken place. However, due to a recent ruling by the United States Supreme Court, this has changed. Police will be permitted to stop a driver based entirely on information received from an anonymous phone call tip.

Previously, a 911 tip was only considered to justify a search if the call provided enough information to allow for reasonable suspicion that a crime was being committed. In one case, in August of 2008, an anonymous tipper alleged that a pick-up truck had run her off the road. After the caller gave the location of the incident and the truck's license plate number, police identified and followed the truck, but did not notice the reported erratic driving. Even so, the officers chose to stop and search the vehicle suspecting the driver was drunk (based entirely on the call) and ultimately arrested the driver for possession of Marijuana. The Supreme Court was left to determine, then, whether that anonymous call alone warranted the stop.

Those Supreme Court justices who supported the officers' right to search the vehicle claimed that the tip in this instance offered enough information for reasonable suspicion. The dissenting group, however, pointed out that there is a dangerous assumption being made with that logic: the caller must have been telling the truth. Justice Antonin Scalia wrote the dissent, pointing to the potential for false tips as a major reason why the ruling could have negative implications. Allowing the caller to remain anonymous means s/he will never need to testify in court; this allows a great deal of freedom for the accuser and little to none for the accused.

Drunken driving is of course a serious matter; we all want to be kept safe when we're on the road. At the same time however, we also deserve to be kept safe from unwarranted police searches that may interrupt our freedom to be on the road at all.

As Scalia put it, "after [this] opinion all of us on the road, and not just drug dealers, are at risk."

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