Supreme Court

Clarence Thomas vs. Antonin Scalia on 4th Amendment and 'Reasonable Suspicion'

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Credit: C-Span

The U.S. Supreme Court handed down a major ruling today with profound implications for the Fourth Amendment rights of all persons who drive or ride in automobiles on public roads. At issue in Navarette v. California was a traffic stop prompted by an anonymous call to 911 claiming that a truck had driven the caller off the road. Going by the information supplied in that call alone, the police located a matching truck in the vicinity of the alleged incident and pulled it over on suspicion of drunk driving. That stop led to the discovery of 30 pounds of marijuana stashed in the truck.

The question before the Supreme Court was whether that single anonymous tip to 911 provided the police with reasonable suspicion to stop the truck. Writing for the majority, Justice Clarence Thomas ruled that the "the stop complied with the Fourth Amendment because, under the totality of the circumstances, the officer had reasonable suspicion that the driver was intoxicated." While this is a "close case," Thomas acknowledged, it still passes constitutional muster. Joining Thomas in that judgment was Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Stephen Breyer, and Samuel Alito.

Writing in dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia came out swinging against Thomas. "The Court's opinion serves up a freedom-destroying cocktail," Scalia declared, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan. It elevates an anonymous and uncorroborated tip above the bedrock guarantee of the Fourth Amendment. "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." That state of affairs, Scalia declared, "is not my concept, and I am sure it would not be the Framers', of a people secure from unreasonable searches and seizures."