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Traffic stop leading to cocaine possession arrest is unconstitutional because 911 caller unreliable

The highest appellate court of Nebraska recently overruled a trial judge who allowed evidence of drunk driving to be admitted during trial, where that evidence was obtained as a result of an traffic stop based on an anonymous tip. Applying recent federal case law, the Nebraska Supreme Court found that the driver’s Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures was violated when the officer stopped the driver without first confirming the reliability of the anonymous 911 caller’s tip, or reasonably believing a crime was committed.

State v. Rodriguez
In the matter of State v. Rodriguez, a 911 dispatcher received an anonymous call alleging that the caller was just pushed out of a moving vehicle. The vehicle was identified as a green GMC Envoy heading westbound on Highway 26. An officer was dispatched to the location, where he observed a vehicle matching the description traveling westbound past the location of the caller. The officer followed the vehicle then activated his emergency lights and began to question the driver about the reported disturbance.

During the questioning, the officer noticed a strong odor of alcohol emanating from the driver, who had a flushed face, slurred speech, and bloodshot watery eyes. The driver was subsequently tested for intoxication, and the officer determined that the driver was heavily intoxicated. During booking, the officer collected the driver’s personal belongings for inventory purposes, when he noticed two clear plastic baggies in the driver’s wallet. One of those baggies was later determined to be cocaine, while the other baggie did not contain any controlled substance.

After being charged with an OUI, third offense, and drug possession, the defendant asked the court to exclude any evidence obtained by officers during incident. The defendant argued that the evidence was obtained by violating the defendant’s Fourth Amendment right. After both the trial judge and the intermediate appellate court disagreed with the defendant’s arguments, the Nebraska Supreme Court overturned the lower courts and ordered that evidence of the defendant’s intoxication and cocaine possession be excluded
Recent Fourth Amendment Law

In reaching its determination, the Nebraska court referred to recent case law from the U.S. Supreme Court that addresses Fourth Amendment violations in the context of traffic stops. There were three particularly important cases:

  1. In the U.S. Supreme Court case of Alabama v. White, 496 U.S. 325 (1990), police officers received an anonymous tip from a caller alleging that the defendant was to leave a particular location at a particular time and in a particular vehicle to reach another location where the defendant would be in possession of cocaine. Police officers corroborated the tip by observing the defendant leave from the time and place alleged and arrived at the destination point alleged. The Supreme Court held that the officers had correctly relied on the tip after they confirmed its reliability by observing the defendant behave as predicted.
  2. In the matter of FL v. J.L., 529 U.S. 266 (2000), the Supreme Court found that an anonymous caller’s allegation that “a young black male standing at a particular bus stop and wearing a plaid shirt was carrying a gun” was inadequate to provide a reasonable basis for officers to stop and frisk the defendant for weapons. The Supreme Court required that the tip be reliable in its assertion that the crime was committed, and not simply in identifying a particular person and accusing him of a crime.
  3. The most recent federal case which the Nebraska court relied on is the matter of Navarette v. California, 134 S. Ct. 1683 (2014). The U.S. Supreme Court in this case reviewed an arrest that was executed after officers received an anonymous tip that the defendant ran the caller off the road and was operating the vehicle erratically down the road. The majority found that this caller’s tip was not only reliable in identifying the driver, but also provided enough evidence for officers to reasonably suspect that the driver was operating the vehicle while intoxicated. Furthermore, the caller identified an ongoing crime, not a past isolated event.

Applying this case law to the facts of the defendant in State v. Rodriguez, the Nebraska Supreme Court found the case to be most similar to the circumstances in FL v. J.L., where the investigatory stop was found to be a violation of the defendant’s Fourth Amendment right. The only information provided by the caller and corroborated by police observations was the description of the vehicle and the general location of the incident. The caller’s tip, however, did not establish any reasonable basis for police to believe that the driver had committed an offense, and so the officers could not have lawfully relied on the caller’s tip to execute a traffic stop. Furthermore, the Nebraska court found that the reported crime was not ongoing, and so could not have justified the traffic stop on the premise that there was an ongoing emergency to be investigated, as in Navarette v. California .

Criminal Implications of Minor Traffic Stops

Federal constitutional law on the Fourth Amendment has developed substantially over the past few decades, particularly due to traffic stops becoming a much more common basis for larger police investigations. Defendants are often surprised to learn that a burnt tail light or expired inspection sticker could, and often do, provide the bases for police to thoroughly investigate the driver for any criminal activity. Because a traffic stop could result in a substantial imposition on a driver’s (or passenger’s) privacy, it is important that all defendants in traffic stops facing criminal charges retain an experienced criminal defense attorney to protect their constitutional rights in order to avoid unlawful prosecution.

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