One of the basic tenants of criminal law is that police must have probable cause to conduct a search without a warrant. This is why officers should wait to witness erratic or illegal behavior before taking further steps. However, does an anonymous tip change this requirement?
This question is at the heart of a California-based criminal case that was recently added to the U.S. Supreme Court's docket. According to reports, two brothers are looking to appeal a drug conviction based on a traffic stop of questionable legality. The two men pled guilty to marijuana transportation charges after they were stopped by police who had received an anonymous tip that their vehicle was swerving.
Although police officers respond to tips frequently, this case is different. The cops who spotted the vehicle indentified by the tipster didn't actually observe any erratic behavior. Instead, they decided to pull over the brothers' truck based only on the tip. In their appeal, the accused men and their attorneys say that the police circumvented their constitutional rights by conducting an illegal search after an unwarranted traffic stop.
After the police stopped the vehicle, they smelled marijuana and a subsequent found that the men were carrying large quantities of the drug. Even though smelling an illicit substance might be grounds to conduct a search during a traffic stop, the defense is saying that the two men shouldn't have been pulled over in the first place.
This case serves as an example of the very basic -- yet critical -- questions that should be asked in every criminal defense. In the end, the hope is that the men involved in this particular case are treated fairly under the law.
Source: Denver Post, “Court: Is anonymous tip enough for traffic stop?” Mark Sherman, Oct. 1, 2013