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"Anonymous Tips" and the Fourth Amendment

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Totality of circumstances deemed sufficient to override protections of 4th Amendment

By Attorney Elisabeth K.H. Pasqualini, Federal Narcotics Trafficking Lawyer, Harrisburg, PA

In a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, an anonymous tip, was deemed sufficient to justify the stop of a motor vehicle based upon the totality of the circumstances.  This is a departure from prior decisional law that has held that an anonymous tip, without police officer corroboration, is insufficient to warrant the stop and detention of a person or an automobile.  It does not provide an officer with "reasonable suspicion" without more.

In Prado Navarette, et al v. California, 572 U.S. ___ (April 22, 2014), a California Highway Patrol officer stopped the pickup truck occupied by the defendants.  It matched the description of a vehicle that an anonymous 911 caller recently reported as having run her off the road.  After stopping the vehicle, an officer detected an odor of marijuana.  Inside the truck's bed was found 30 pounds of marijuana.  The defendants moved to suppress the evidence based upon the stop that had as its reason the anonymous call.  The trial court denied suppression.  The California Court of Appeals affirmed.  The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the decision- Affirmed.

Traffic Stops and the Fourth Amendment

The 4th Amendment allows for brief investigative stops when an officer has "particularized and objective basis for suspecting a particular person has committed or engaged in criminal activity."  A "reasonable suspicion" takes into account the "totality of the circumstances" and depends "upon both the content of information possessed by the police and its degree of reliability."  An anonymous tip is alone seldom demonstrates sufficient reliability, but may do so under appropriate circumstances.  (See link to article on Traffic Stops and Searches).

When is an Anonymous Tip Enough?

The Court has previously held that "an anonymous tip alone seldom demonstrates the informant's basis of knowledge and veracity."  Reasonable suspicion requires more than a "hunch."  However, where there is "sufficient indicia of reliability" in the tipster's information, a stop may be justified.  Here, the recency of the call together with the in-depth description of the vehicle- a silver Ford F-150, license plate number 8D94925 and the tipster's first hand account of the wrong-doing, was sufficiently reliable.

This is a rare exception to the anonymous tip scenario.  Typically, the tipster will not have sufficient information about the alleged wrongdoing or a prediction of future behavior that will, in and of itself, render an officer in a sufficient belief that a crime has or is occurring to justify a roadside detention.

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