On October 8, 2020, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals decided the United States v. Bruce[i], in which the court examined whether officers had reasonable suspicion to detain a person based upon an anonymous tip. The relevant facts of Bruce, taken directly from the case, are as follows:
The recorded 911 call came in a little after 3:00 a.m. An unnamed man said that he saw a “disturbance” in the front yard of a “drug house”—and that one of the men involved had a gun. When the 911 operator asked what was happening “as we speak right now,” the caller replied that “they’re arguing in the front yard.” The caller described the person holding the gun as a black man dressed in all black, and said that he was standing next to a white car in front of the house. Before the call ended, the tipster warned that the police should use caution because there “might be shooting any minute.”
Dispatch quickly relayed the key parts of this call to the police. The dispatch message told police (in shorthand) about the “argument in front yard, and black male standing next to white vehicle, and this subject holding handgun.” Officers were also given the address in the Perrine neighborhood where the disturbance was taking place. Several officers were nearby because Perrine accounted for about half of the 911 calls for their zone, even though the neighborhood was only a small portion of the entire area they patrolled. Within five minutes, flashing police lights were at the scene.
The approaching officers saw two men in the white car at the specified address. For safety reasons, they drew their guns as they drew near to the car. Their priority, as one officer explained, was “officer safety” and the safety of people who might be “gathered in the area.” When they told the men to exit the car, Bruce tried to make a break for it. One of the officers grabbed him, and in the scuffle a loaded semi-automatic pistol dropped from Bruce’s waistband. Though officers soon discovered that Bruce and his associate were likely arguing with someone on the phone rather than with each other, they also found out that Bruce was a felon—meaning that it was illegal for him to carry a gun.[ii]
Bruce was subsequently charged under federal law for being a felon in possession of a firearm. He filed a motion to suppress the gun and the district court denied the motion. Bruce pled guilty with the right to appeal the denial of the motion to suppress. He then filed an appeal with the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.
On appeal, Bruce first argued that the officers lacked reasonable suspicion to detain him because the reasonable suspicion was based upon an anonymous tip.
The Eleventh Circuit first noted that
Officers “may briefly detain a person as part of an investigatory stop if they have a reasonable articulable suspicion based on objective facts that the person has engaged in criminal activity.” United States v. Blackman, 66 F.3d 1572, 1576 (11th Cir. 1995)[iii]
Regarding anonymous tips, the court stated
The Supreme Court has been clear that “an anonymous tip can demonstrate ‘sufficient indicia of reliability to provide reasonable suspicion to make an investigatory stop.'” Navarette, 572 U.S. at 397 (quoting White, 496 U.S. at 327) (punctuation omitted).[iv]
Thus, the court set out to determine if the anonymous tip in Bruce’s case had a “sufficient indicia of reliability” such that it provided reasonable suspicion to believe Bruce was involved in criminal activity.
The Eleventh Circuit discussed Navarette v. California[v], in which the Supreme Court examined the reliability of an anonymous tip. In Navarette, an anonymous tipster called 911 and stated that a silver pick-up truck (make, model and tag also provided) had just run her off the road, and was driving recklessly, or possibly intoxicated. The Supreme Court held that the call was reliable enough to establish sufficient reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, even though the officer did not see the truck drive erratically or commit any traffic violations. The court stated
That “call bore adequate indicia of reliability” because the caller (1) “claimed eyewitness knowledge” of the event, (2) provided a “contemporaneous report,” and (3) used the 911 emergency system. Id. at 398-400.[vi]
The court noted that, in Bruce’s case, all three of the factors above were also present. First, the anonymous caller stated that he was an eyewitness, in that he saw the man with a gun arguing with another man. The caller told the dispatcher what he was observing at the time he was speaking with her. The court stated that this eyewitness account shows that the caller has a “basis of knowledge” and that lends support to the credibility of the tip, even when the caller is anonymous.
Second, the caller gave the dispatcher information as he was witnessing the incident occurring. This is what was meant by a contemporaneous report. Reports made by eyewitnesses as the incidents are actively occurring are considered “especially reliable.”[vii]
Third, the caller called the 911 system to report the incident, which enhances the calls reliability. The court stated
[T]he fact that the tipster called 911 to report the incident proves to be another “indicator of veracity” under Navarette. Id. at 400. A 911 call can be traced if necessary, and can also be recorded (as it was here). See id. at 400-01. These tools diminish the chance that a lying tipster could hide behind the cloak of anonymity. And if that were not enough, a caller can be prosecuted for providing a false tip. See id. at 400; Fla. Stat. § 817.49. That does not necessarily mean that every 911 caller is telling the truth—we assume that some do not. But it does mean that a “reasonable officer could conclude that a false tipster would think twice” before calling 911. Navarette, 572 U.S. at 401. Law enforcement would be hamstrung if it could not ordinarily “rely on information conveyed by anonymous 911 callers.” United States v. Holloway, 290 F.3d 1331, 1339 (11th Cir. 2002).[viii]
Bruce argued that because the police did not see any conduct that corroborated the 911 call regarding the gun and the argument, that the anonymous tip fell short of reasonable suspicion. However, the court stated
Those three factors made the tip reliable on its own, without the police independently seeing any criminal activity. The same was true in Navarette, where the police never saw the reckless driving that the tipster alleged. See 572 U.S. at 403-04; see also United States v. McCants, 952 F.3d 416, 423 (3d Cir. 2020) (HN10 “The absence of corroborative evidence, the Court held, did not negate the reasonable suspicion created by the 911 call.”[ix]
Bruce also took issue that the police approached him with guns drawn. The court stated that waiting to see if an armed suspect would launch a deadly attack before drawing their weapons would endanger the police and others in the area. The court reasoned
[T]he law does not require officers in a tense and dangerous situation to wait until the moment a suspect uses a deadly weapon to act to stop the suspect.” Long v. Slaton, 508 F.3d 576, 581 (11th Cir. 2007). In response to both of these suggestions, our answer is the same: “We think the police need not have taken that chance and hoped for the best.” Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 385, 127 S. Ct. 1769, 167 L. Ed. 2d 686 (2007).[x]
Thus, the court held that the officers had sufficient reasonable suspicion to detain Bruce based on the anonymous 911 call.
The court also examined Bruce’s argument that he was stopped on the curtilage of a home without a warrant.
The court noted that
Curtilage is an area near and closely associated with the home; at the founding, it was considered part of the house for Fourth Amendment purposes. See Collins v. Virginia, 138 S. Ct. 1663, 1676, 201 L. Ed. 2d 9 (2018)[xi]
Further, the court discussed Collins v. Virginia, in which the Supreme Court held that
[T]he automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment does not permit a police officer, “uninvited and without a warrant, to enter the curtilage of a home in order to search a vehicle parked therein.” Id. at 1668[xii]
The court also listed four factors to consider when determining if an area is “curtilage” and thus afforded protection by the Fourth Amendment. The four factors are
(1) the proximity of the area claimed to be curtilage to the home;
(2) the nature of the uses to which the area is put;
(3) whether the area is included within an enclosure surrounding the home; and,
There were insufficient facts documented in the record in Bruce’s case to determine if the area in which the car was parked was “curtilage.” As such, this argument failed.
Therefore, the court of appeals affirmed the denial of the motion to suppress.
[i] No. 18-10969 (11th Cir. Decided October 8, 2020)
[ii] Id. at 2-4
[iii] Id. at 6 (emphasis added)
[iv] Id. (emphasis added)
[v] 572 U.S. 393 (2014)
[vi] Bruce at 8 (emphasis added)
[viii] Id. at 8-9 (emphasis added)
[ix] Id. at 9 (emphasis added)
[x] Id. at 15 (emphasis added)
[xi] Id. at 16 (emphasis added)
[xii] Id. at 17 (emphasis added)
[xiii] Id. at 17-18