06/14/2007

Calif. court rules police can use anonymous tip as prelude to searching home

Bob Egelko
San Francisco Chronicle
Related: Anonymous tip/unlawful stop investigative stops quiz 

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. — Police who get an anonymous tip about a crime suspect don't have to check it out before going to the suspect's home and asking to be let in, the state Supreme Court ruled today.

In a unanimous decision, the court said police can enter a home with a resident's permission, after a "knock-and-talk'' conversation at the door, without the evidence of wrongdoing they need for an involuntary detention or search.

"The sanctity of the home is not threatened when police approach a residence, converse with the homeowner and properly obtain consent to search,'' Justice Carol Corrigan wrote for the court.

She dismissed defense arguments that allowing police to seek entry into a home based on an unverified tip would invite harassing visits instigated by anonymous calls from a resident's enemies.

The case came from Oceanside (SanDiego County), where police got an anonymous report in January 2004 that Juan Rivera, described as the possible subject of an arrest warrant, was living at a home.

Police went to the home and asked the owner if she knew Rivera. An officer later testified that he could not recall her answer, but that she had invited him in and had later consented to a search of her home.

Police said they had found Rivera in a shed and asked if he had any weapons. When he told them he had a knife, they handcuffed him and found a large knife in a sheath under his shirt.

Rivera, who was wanted for traffic and parole violations, pleaded guilty to a concealed-weapons charge after unsuccessfully challenging his detention and search. He was sentenced to two years in prison.

A state appeals court in San Diego overturned Rivera's conviction, saying police can't rely on an anonymous and uncorroborated report to detain and search someone. The court cited a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2000 that overturned a gun conviction after a "stop-and-frisk'' search based on an anonymous tip.

But California's high court said Rivera's case was different because police had entered the home with the owner's consent. The reliability of the original tip was irrelevant, Corrigan said, because officers need no evidence of wrongdoing before approaching someone and asking to talk or to be allowed into a home.

Rather than reinstating Rivera's conviction, however, the court returned the case to the appellate panel to decide whether police acted legally in holding him. Deputy Attorney General Felicity Senoski, the state's lawyer, said she is confident the lower court will uphold the detention.

"The court recognized that police may lawfully approach a private home and seek consent from the homeowner without infringing on anybody's Fourth Amendment rights,'' she said, referring to the constitutional ban on unreasonable searches and seizures.

Rivera's lawyer was not immediately available for comment.

Copyright 2007 Hearst Communications Inc.

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