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Advice for officers responding to anonymous tips

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By Jason Schuck, Legal Analyst, LexisNexis

As most police no doubt know, before an officer may stop and question an individual he or she must have reasonable suspicion to believe that the individual is engaged in criminal activity. An anonymous tip—most commonly from an unidentified 911 caller or a voicemail left by an unknown person on a “tip line”—can create such reasonable suspicion, if it is corroborated by other observations and supported by indicia of reliability.

The U.S. Supreme Court first announced this principle in the important case of Alabama v. White. Montgomery police received an anonymous tip stating that the defendant, carrying a brown briefcase filled with cocaine, would leave a specific unit of an apartment building and travel in her brown Plymouth station wagon, which had a broken taillight, to a specific motel. Police watched the apartment complex, and saw a brown Plymouth wagon with a broken taillight. They then watched a woman later identified as the defendant, empty-handed, exit the specified apartment, get into the car, and drive directly toward the motel. Even though not every detail in the tip turned out to be totally correct, the partial corroboration by police alone provided sufficient reasonable suspicion for a stop.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals case of U.S. v. Alvarez is similar. Police received an anonymous phone call stating that in about ten minutes the Bank of America would be robbed by a man armed with explosives. The informant went on to say that the robber, who drove a white Mustang GT, was “tall, dark, look[ing] kind of Mexican, and [. . .] probably in the back of the bank.” Several patrol cars were dispatched to the bank; once there, the officers observed a white Mustang GT backed into a parking space, which struck the officers as a somewhat unusual way to position the vehicle. The Mustang had a “Hispanic looking male occupant.” While officers watched, the car remained where it was for at least five minutes; finally, a marked patrol car drove within the Mustang driver’s line of sight, at which point the car left the bank parking lot. The officers then stopped the car, based on reasonable suspicion; they had verified almost every detail of the tip and had seen behavior consistent with that of a would-be bank robber which corroborated the tip.

In the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals case of U.S. v. Perrin, an anonymous call to York County, Virginia, police claimed that “Charles Odell” (the defendant’s first and middle names) was selling crack cocaine in the laundry mat of the Yorktown Square Apartments, a known high-crime area. Three days later, the police received a second anonymous call alleging that “Charlie Red” (which police knew was the defendant’s street name) was selling crack outside Building 4 of the same apartment complex. The officer was familiar with both the defendant and the character of the neighborhood where he was allegedly dealing. Within an hour of the second call, the officer drove by Building 4, where he saw the defendant standing outside, drinking a beer. The fact that the officer received two calls within three days, both of which offered detailed descriptions of the defendant’s activities, combined with his own knowledge and observations, established reasonable suspicion for a stop.

However, in Florida v. J.L., the U.S. Supreme Court cautioned that an anonymous tip, by itself, is not enough to justify an investigative stop, even if the crime alleged to be taking place is dangerous. In this case, an anonymous caller to the Miami-Dade County police stated that a young black male dressed in a plaid shirt who was standing at a specified bus stop was carrying a gun. Officers arrived at the bus stop approximately six minutes later, and saw three black males, one of whom (the defendant) was wearing a plaid shirt. Other than the tip, the officers had no reason to suspect any of the three of criminal activity. They saw no firearm, nor any threatening or unusual movements. However, the tip carried no indicia of reliability. It provided no predictive information, and, therefore, no means to test the caller's credibility. The caller neither explained how he knew the defendant had a gun nor supplied any basis for believing that he had “inside information” about the defendant. Therefore, the officers lacked reasonable suspicion, so that their stop of the defendant was unconstitutional.

Compare this case with the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeal case of Northrop v. Trippett. An anonymous call to the Detroit Police Department alleged that two black males, one wearing a green “Used” jeans outfit, were selling drugs at the Greyhound bus station. The caller provided no other information. Later that day, two uniformed officers arrived at the station and saw two black males sitting and talking. One wore an outfit matching the description in the call, and the other was plaintiff Charles Northrop. As Northrop stood up and began to leave, the officers stopped him and ordered both men to empty their pockets. This stop was not supported by reasonable suspicion—the anonymous tip offered only a vague description and gave no information predicting the subjects’ future conduct. Moreover, the officers observed no suspicious conduct on the part of defendant or his companion that could have corroborated the tip.

Officers should keep these principles in mind when deciding whether or not to make a stop. If an officer has a tip, if that tip does not establish reasonable suspicion, the ensuing stop will be deemed illegal, and any incriminating evidence found thereafter will not be admissible in court.

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