Criminal Justice Information Center- Anonymous Tips

Anonymous Tips
Let’s say you and your neighbor do not get along. One day, in order to cause you trouble, this neighbor makes an anonymous call to the police stating that you are selling drugs. Suddenly, there is a knock on the door and several police rush in, armed with a warrant and begin to conduct a search of your home. The United States Supreme Court has wrestled with this issue; how to protect an individual from a search and seizure caused by a tipster who merely wants to get even as opposed to a legitimate search necessitated by illegal activity.

In Florida v. J.L., an anonymous tipster called the police and stated that a young black man, dressed in a plaid shirt, was standing at a particular bus stop and was carrying a gun. The police then drove to the bus stop where they observed three African American men with one dressed in a plaid shirt. Other than the tip, the officers had no reason to suspect any of the three were engaging in criminal conduct. They did not see a gun nor did they observe threatening or unusual behavior. In fact, it looked as if they were just waiting for the bus. The caller did not indicate that he knew this particular person nor did he supply any reason for knowing why he had information about the person he was accusing. Regardless, the police stopped the three men, conducted a search, found a gun and made an arrest. In this case the court ruled that the stop of the defendant was unconstitutional, holding that an anonymous tip, by itself, is not enough to justify an investigative stop, even if the crime alleged to be taking place was dangerous.

As such, the police, in order to act on an anonymous tip, must have some sort of corroboration of illegal activity. Ways to obtain this corroboration include direct observation by the police, having received prior tips from the anonymous tipster that turned out to be true, or some other evidence to support the tip.

For instance, I recently had a case where my client was accused of selling illegal drugs after police received an anonymous phone call. Based on this call, the police staged a garbage pull. On the day that my client put out his garbage for collection, the police seized the garbage, searched it, and found seeds and stems associated with the cleaning of marijuana. While armed with merely the anonymous tip, the police could not have secured a search warrant but coupled with the seeds and stems, a warrant was issued, marijuana was found in the home, and my client was arrested. On the other hand, if the police had merely searched the house after receiving the tip, any evidence collected would not be admissible in court.

If you have been subjected to a search and seizure, it is important to contact a competent and experienced attorney who is trained to look at all the facts. Based on these facts, if you are arrested, your attorney may be able to reduce the impact of your arrest or even have the charges dismissed.

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