In Florida v. J.L., 529 U.S. 266 (2000), the United States Supreme Court examined the use of anonymous tips by police officers. In J.L., the police received an anonymous call that a black male, wearing a plaid shirt, and standing at a bus stop had a handgun in his pocket. An officer responded to the scene, and without any further corroboration, the officer reached into J.L.’s pocket and seized the gun. The Court held that an anonymous tip of this nature, that merely describes a subject in a particular location, does not satisfy the reasonable suspicion necessary to justify a frisk.

In J.L., the Court distinguished, Alabama v. White, 496 U.S. 325 (1990), where the Court found that an anonymous tip that predicts future conduct that the police can corroborate before a stop will satisfy the reasonable suspicion standard. In White, the caller indicated that a woman named White would be leaving a specific address, at a specific time, in a specific vehicle, in possession of briefcase containing drugs. The caller further indicated that White would be going to a specific hotel with the drugs. The police conducted a surveillance of the location and observed White leave at the predicted time in the predicted vehicle. White drove toward the predicted hotel at which point she was stopped. The Court upheld the stop in this case after finding that the anonymous tipster showed intimate knowledge of White by the caller’s ability to predict White’s future conduct.

Some recent cases based on anonymous tips provide some guidance on this issue. In Johnson v. Texas, 146 S.W.3d 719 (Texas Ct. Appeals 6th Dist. Texarkarna 2004), a Texas appellate court examined an anonymous tip concerning narcotics sales. “The caller told police a black man, accompanied by two black females, driving a 1999 black Ford Taurus with a specified license plate number, was involved in possible drug activity at a specified apartment complex. The officer testified the apartment complex in question was known to be a place that regularly had “drug deals and drug activity” occurring.” Based on this information the officer responded to the area and stopped Johnson’s vehicle. Johnson was alone in the vehicle at the time of the stop.

In analyzing whether the officer had a sufficient basis to stop this vehicle, the court took notice of the following points: “A mere anonymous tip, standing alone, does not constitute probable cause…An anonymous telephone call may justify the initiation of an investigation, but the court has held that, alone, it will rarely establish the level of suspicion to justify a detention…The corroboration of the details which do not indicate criminal activity will not lend support to the anonymous tip…Reasonable suspicion requires it [the anonymous tip] be reliable in its assertion of illegality, not just in its tendency to identify a determinate person…When more information is available, [that may be corroborated before the stop] however, a police officer may reasonably conclude the tip is reliable, thus justifying an investigatory detention.” The officer in this case testified that the sole basis for the stop in this case was the anonymous tip coupled with the officer’s knowledge of the area. The court, in rejecting the validity of the stop concluded that the officer had no information which provided corroboration that Johnson was the fruit of the poisonous tree.

As a practical matter, officers must recognize that when a car is stopped, as in Johnson, a seizure has occurred, thus eliminating the possibility of a consensual contact.

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