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Traffic Stops and Anonymous Tips

The U.S. Supreme Court has taken up the case of two marijuana dealers who were busted when someone called in to report their reckless driving.  The California Court of Appeal summarized the case in People v. Navarette, A132353 (unpublished) (footnotes omitted):

Appellants Lorenzo Prado Navarette and Jose Prado Navarette (collectively, Appellants) were detained by officers of the California Highway Patrol (CHP) and subsequently arrested for transportation of marijuana and possession of marijuana for sale (Health & Saf. Code, §§ 11359, 11360). The marijuana was discovered in Appellants' pickup truck during a traffic detention after the officers received a report from an unidentified citizen that the vehicle had been observed driving recklessly. Appellants' motion to suppress the evidence seized from their truck was denied, and they pled guilty to transportation of marijuana (Health & Saf. Code, § 11360).

Citing People v. Wells (2006) 38 Cal.4th 1078 (Wells), Appellants contend that the evidence against them should have been suppressed because the anonymous tip received by police was insufficient to provide reasonable suspicion of criminal activity justifying an investigative stop of the vehicle, where the officers directly confirmed only significant innocent details of the tip but did not directly observe any illegal activity. We conclude that the totality of the circumstances in this case justified the traffic stop. We also reject an argument that the Harvey-Madden rule required the police dispatcher who originally received the call to personally testify at the suppression hearing. Because the detention was supported by reasonable suspicion, Appellants' suppression motion was properly denied and the judgments are affirmed.
After reviewing the particular circumstances, the court concludes, "In sum, the People established that the officers had reasonable suspicion of unlawful activity justifying their investigative stop of Appellants' vehicle. The court properly denied Appellants' motion to suppress the fruits of that stop."

The U.S. Supreme Court case is Navarette v. California, No. 12-9490.  The case presents the federal Fourth Amendment question in its pure form.  Because the case is on direct review, not habeas corpus, there are no AEDPA or Stone v. Powell issues.  Because California voters abolished the state's exclusionary rule, there are no independent state grounds.

Update:  The Question Presented (as phrased by the defendants' counsel) is now available on the Supreme Court website.  The question they agreed to decide is:

1.  Does the Fourth Amendment require an officer who receives an anonymous tip regarding a drunken or reckless driver to corroborate dangerous driving before stopping the vehicle?

They turned down defendants' request to decide:

2.  Does an anonymous tip that a specific vehicle ran someone off the road provide reasonable suspicion to stop a vehicle, where the detaining officer was only advised to be on the lookout for a reckless driver, and the officer could not corroborate dangerous driving despite following the suspect vehicle for several miles?


Can you explain how a case gets direct review by SCOTUS and what Powell was about?

State criminal cases can get into federal court two ways. The most straightforward way is for the United States Supreme Court to take the case after the state appellate courts have decided the appeal. In this route, the case never does go to the lower federal courts. This is direct review.

The second way is for the prisoner to file a petition for writ of habeas corpus in the federal district court. This is called a collateral attack on the judgment. The lower federal courts have no jurisdiction to hear an appeal, as such, from the state courts. The district court's decision can be reviewed by the federal court of appeals and then by the Supreme Court, thus providing a second path to get to the same court.

The use of habeas corpus to review state decisions is controversial. It allows lower federal courts to effectively overturn the judgment of the highest court of a state. Both Congress and the Supreme Court have placed limits on this use of habeas corpus, although so far neither has seen fit to get rid of it altogether.

In Stone v. Powell (1976), the Supreme Court decided that habeas corpus could not be used for claims that evidence should have been suppressed under the Fourth Amendment exclusionary rule. Direct review of the state court decision by the Supreme Court is the only federal review for these claims.

Does the reasoning of Stone v. Powell applied to Supreme Court reviewing decisions on State PCR?

Offhand, I wouldn't think so. If the state allows Mapp claims on state collateral review, SCOTUS would probably be able to review it. California does not allow such claims on state habeas. Don't know how many states do.

Thank you for answering my questions. I few more if you don't mind:

1. Why is it that most cases get to SCOTUS by habeas? Is direct review limited in some sense?

2. What does State PCR mean?

3. I've read elsewhere that there's no constitutional right to appeal? Is that right?


1. I would not say that most cases get to SCOTUS by habeas. The Supreme Court turns down the vast majority of requests to hear cases (~99%). The number of cases is far more than the capacity of nine people to hear and decide.

2. PCR stands for "post-conviction review." The term is a bit of a misnomer, because the direct appeal also follows conviction but is not considered "post-conviction review." Generally, the appeal is limited to claims that can be made on the trial record. "Post-conviction review" refers to the procedure, which varies by state, in which a convicted person can ask for further review of his case and introduce evidence outside the trial record. For example, if the testimony at trial is that an informant was not offered anything for his testimony but later it is discovered that he was, that claim would have to be made on post-conviction review.

3. The Supreme Court has never held that there is a federal constitutional right to appeal. The question doesn't come up, because all states provide an appeal by state law, and Congress has provided for appeals by statute in federal cases. Once an appeal is provided, there is a constitutional right to appointed counsel for indigent appellants.

Remember that the Supreme Court, and courts in many states, have shows a willingness to change the rules of criminal procedure a bit when drunk driving is involved. The prime example of this is in the Supreme Court's checkpoints doctrine, which allows checkpoints for drunk driving but not for drug trafficking. The Court in Michigan Department of State Police v. Sitz reasoned that the great hazards of drunk driving justify the slight intrusion into privacy induced by checkpoint stops. But the Court in City of Indianapolis v. Edmond limited that holding to areas of public danger, holding that catching drug traffickers does not protect the public the way stopping drunk drivers does. If this concern for drunk driving continues into the Navarrette case, I expect the Court to once again give police more latitude to stop drunk drivers using anonymous tips than they would otherwise have.

You can read my article on the topic at 25 Reg. U. L. Rev. 185 (2012) or on SSRN at http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2338531.

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