Horatio

Horatio
[Photo by Jacquelyn Griffin)

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Scalia's Eloquent Defense of the Fourth Amendment

In a decision rendered today, Justice Scalia eviscerates the majority upholding on incredibly flimsy grounds a police stop based on an anonymous tip:
Not only, it turns out, did the police have no good reason at first to believe that Lorenzo was driving drunk, they had very good reason at last to know that he was not. The Court concludes that the tip, plus confirmation of the truck’s location, produced reasonable suspicion that the truck not only had been but still was barreling dangerously and drunkenly down Highway 1. Ante, at 8–10. In fact, alas, it was not, and the officers knew it. They followed the truck for five minutes, presumably to see if it was being operated recklessly. And that was good police work. While the anonymous tip was not enough to support a stop for drunken driving under Terry v. Ohio, it was surely enough to counsel observation of the truck to see if it was driven by a drunken driver. But the pesky little detail left out of the Court’s reasonable-suspicion equation is that, for the five minutes that the truck was being followed (five minutes is a long time), Lorenzo’s driving was irreproachable. Had the officers witnessed the petitioners violate a single traffic law, they would have had cause to stop the truck, and this case would not be before us. And not only was the driving irreproachable, but the State offers no evidence to suggest that the petitioners even did anything suspicious, such as suddenly slowing down, pulling off to the side of the road, or turning somewhere to see whether they were being followed. Consequently, the tip’s suggestion of ongoing drunken driving (if it could be deemed to suggest that) not only went uncorroborated; it was affirmatively undermined….

***

The Court’s opinion serves up a freedom-destroying cocktail consisting of two parts patent falsity: (1) that anonymous 911 reports of traffic violations are reliable so long as they correctly identify a car and its location, and (2) that a single instance of careless or reckless driving necessarily supports a reasonable suspicion of drunkenness. All the malevolent 911 caller need do is assert a traffic violation, and the targeted car will be stopped, forcibly if necessary, by the police. If the driver turns out not to be drunk (which will almost always be the case), the caller need fear no consequences, even if 911 knows his identity. After all, he never alleged drunkenness, but merely called in a traffic violation—and on that point his word is as good as his victim’s.

Drunken driving is a serious matter, but so is the loss of our freedom to come and go as we please without police interference. To prevent and detect murder we do not allow searches without probable cause or targeted Terry stops without reasonable suspicion. We should not do so for drunken driving either. After today’s opinion all of us on the road, and not just drug dealers, are at risk of having our freedom of movement curtailed on suspicion of drunkenness, based upon a phone tip, true or false, of a single instance of careless driving. I respectfully dissent.
When the man is right, he's on fire. Really, this is a beaut of a dissent, and kudos to Scalia, as well as to Justices Ginsburg, Kagan, and Sotomayor for joining him. As to Thomas, Breyer, Roberts, Alito, and Kennedy--bad cess to them.

(Hat-tip: Scott Lemieux at LGM)

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