Anonymous Tips Often Don’t Justify You Being Stopped by the Police

Were you arrested based on an anonymous tip?  If so, your stop by the officers may have been unlawful and you may be able to get your case dropped.

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and its Florida analog establish the “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures” absent a warrant or a judicially-recognized exception. A police officer therefore may temporarily detain you only if he has a reasonable suspicion you have committed, are committing, or are about to commit a crime. To avoid a Fourth Amendment violation, an investigatory stop requires a well-founded, articulable suspicion of criminal activity. A hunch or mere suspicion that you’re engaging in criminal activity is insufficient to support a stop.

Reasonable suspicion, in turn, depends on both the content of information possessed by police and its reliability. Both factors—quantity and quality—are considered in the totality of the circumstances—the whole picture to be considered when evaluating whether there is reasonable suspicion.

Assessing the constitutionality of an investigatory stop requires two-steps.  First, the facts leading up to the search must be identified.  Secondly, it must be determined whether those facts, viewed from the standpoint of an objectively reasonable police officer, amount to reasonable suspicion of criminal activity to justify a stop. Reasonableness is measured in objective terms by examining the totality of the circumstances.  The subjective intentions of the officers is irrelevant.

If you were stopped based on an anonymous tip, the critical issue is whether the limited information the officers were provided, along with your conduct, meets the constitutional standard for an investigatory detention.  In other words, the key question is whether the detaining officers had a well-founded and reasonable suspicion that you had committed or were about to commit a crime sufficient to justify your immediate detention.

In undertaking this analysis, the anonymous tip must first be closely scrutinized for reliability because unlike tips from known informants whose reputation can determined and who can be held accountable if they provide false information, an anonymous tip alone seldom demonstrates the informant’s basis of knowledge or veracity.  Therefore, unlike information from reliable and verifiable third parties upon which officers are permitted to rely, an anonymous tip is deemed less trustworthy and therefore is given little weight.

Numerous Florida cases demonstrate these principles.  For example, in Cooks v. State, 28 So. 3d 147 (Fla. 1st DCA 2010), a hotel clerk reported a black male—who was with three other black males in a maroon four-door vehicle—was trying to open the back door of the hotel around 4 a.m.  The clerk told them to leave and, fearing for her safety, called the sheriff’s office.

While driving to the hotel, the deputy saw a car matching the description in the dispatch report. The deputy turned in behind it and stopped the car. Cooks was driving and there was one other person in the car.  Cooks was detained and a subsequent search revealed drugs in his jacket and in the car.

Cooks later filed a motion to suppress challenging the constitutionality of his investigatory stop.  When motions to suppress are granted, the state loses the ability to present the suppressed evidence at trial.  Having lost the key evidence in the case, the state then usually drops the charges.  Unfortunately for Mr. Cooks, however, the trial court denied the motion.

Mr. Cooks then appealed that ruling.  The appellate court reversed the trial court.  It concluded that although the hotel clerk was a citizen informant whose information is accorded greater reliability and weight than an anonymous source, the information she provided failed to give rise to a reasonable suspicion that Cooks had committed, was committing, or would commit a crime.  Rather, the clerk merely observed a man try to open the back door of the hotel and then immediately depart.  Her hunch that the men were trying to rob the hotel was not only incorrect, as they departed and no robbery occurred, it was also insufficient to establish a reasonable suspicion to justify the stop.

Similarly, in R.E. v. State, 536 So. 2d 1125 (Fla. 1st DCA 1988), a citizen informant, Harold Davis, called the sheriff’s department to report what he thought might have been drug transactions. Davis witnessed a meeting between two persons in a parking lot.  During the meeting he saw the men pass what appeared to be a key case between the cars and then open one of the cars’ trunk.  Davis didn’t see any drugs or money exchanged, but the incident was perceived by him to be a drug deal.  Davis identified the participants as white males and provided a partial license plate number for one of the vehicles.    

The information from Davis was then broadcast to officers in the field.  Soon thereafter an officer  stopped a vehicle matching the description, even though there was nothing to arouse suspicion and the driver was obeying the traffic laws at the time.  Along with the three juveniles in the car were cans of beer and marijuana.

The court made two observations in concluding the investigatory detention of the juveniles was improper. First, it rejected the notion the information provided by the informant pertained to a specific offense, concluding instead the report concerned merely generalized, allegedly suspicious activity and noted the requirement the information must make it reasonable to suspect that a crime had been, was being, or would be committed.  Secondly, the court noted a citizen’s claim of suspicious activity that has a minimal objective basis must be corroborated by more than the innocent details of identification to satisfy the requirement the information be sufficiently detailed to single out the suspect. Such information, the court said, does not support a suspicion that crime is underway, which is essential if a report of generalized, allegedly suspicious activity is to justify a stop.

Yet another case finding an informant’s tip insufficient to justify a stop is Majors v. State, 70 So. 3d 655 (Fla. 1st DCA 2011).   There a bank manager called 911.  He then whispered into the phone that a customer was acting weird while attempting to withdraw $17,500. The customer, who had never made large withdrawals before, wanted to get a check for the driver of a Nissan parked in front of the bank.  The customer went back and forth between the Nissan and the bank, acting strangely and talking with the people in the Nissan. Officers arrived at the bank and used their vehicles to block the Nissan, which was attempting to back out of a parking space.  Majors was arrested in the process.

The court concluded the investigatory stop was unjustified on two grounds. First, it noted the officers admitted they didn’t suspect any particular crime was occurring when they stopped the Nissan.  Moreover, had they identified a crime they believed was occurring, there would have been insufficient evidence to support their suspicion. While the customer’s activity inside the bank could be perceived as strange, any concern that his behavior and his interaction with the Nissan related to criminal conduct was not supported by any articulable facts.

Secondly, the Majors court found the Nissan’s attempt to leave the bank when the officers arrived did not give rise to a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.  While agreeing that flight can be a factor in creating a reasonable suspicion, particularly hasty flight from police in a high-crime area, the court emphasized reasonable suspicion of criminal activity is not established simply because a defendant leaves the scene as an officer arrives. In considering all of the circumstances, the court concluded any suspicion that the people in the Nissan were involved in a crime was unsupported speculation.

You have a constitutional right to protection from unreasonable searches and seizures.  If you were arrested based on information provided to the police from an anonymous tip, your rights may have been violated.  If that’s the case, it’s best that you consult with a Jacksonville criminal defense attorney knowledgeable about anonymous tips and how to possibly get your case dropped if it is based on such information.  Call me for a free consultation to discuss how I can help you challenge your case based on an anonymous tip in Jacksonville, Orange Park, Fleming Island, Green Cove Springs, Middleburg, Keystone Heights, Fernandina Beach, Yulee, Callahan, Hilliard, Macclenny, or surrounding areas.

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