Written by attorney Sabarish P Neelakanta

Detention of criminal suspect based upon anonymous informant's tip

If a police officer has a reasonable, articulable suspicion that a person has committed or is committing a crime, he may briefly detain the person without a warrant. Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968). The reasonable suspicion standard “is a less demanding standard than probable cause and requires a showing considerably less that preponderance of the evidence." Illinoisv. Wardlow, 528 U.S. 119, 123 (2000). The U.S. Supreme Court further clarified that:

“[R]easonable suspicion, like probable cause, is dependent upon both the content of information possessed by police and its degree of reliability. Both factors -quantity and quality- are considered in the ‘totality of the circumstances-the whole picture,’ that must be taken into account when evaluating whether there is reasonable suspicion. Thus, if a tip has relatively low degree of reliability, more information will be required to establish the requisite quantum of suspicion than would be required if the tip were more reliable."

Alabamav. White, 496 U.S. 325, 330 (1990).

Notably, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that an anonymous informant’s tip alone, without other indicia of reliability, is insufficiently reliable to provide an officer with reasonable suspicion of criminal activity necessary to justify a Terry stop. See Florida v. J.L., 529 US 266 (2000) (holding that the police officer lacked a reasonable suspicion to stop and frisk the defendant when the sole basis for the stop and frisk was an anonymous tip received by the police that a young black male standing at a particular bus stop wearing a plaid shirt was carrying a weapon); see also Whiting v. State, 595 So. 2d 1070, 1071 (Fla. 2d DCA 1992)(it is not enough to justify a stop for police merely to corroborate the identity, dress, description, or location of an individual who is the subject of an anonymous tip, additional independent evidence of criminal activity is required). Thus, the U.S. Supreme Court concluded that for an anonymous tip to provide a reasonable basis for a Terry stop, the tip must contain specific details which are then corroborated by independent police investigation. J.L., U.S. at 270-71.

Moreover, the U.S. Supreme Court distinguished face-to-face information received from anonymous persons, versus anonymous tips received over the telephone, finding the latter to be insufficient for an investigatory stop. Id. That is, a face-to-face anonymous tip is presumed to be inherently more reliable than an anonymous telephone tip because the officers receiving the information have an opportunity to observe the demeanor and perceived credibility of the informant. See Statev. Maynard, 783 So.2d 226, 228 (Fla. 2001); see also Baptiste v. State, 995 So.2d 285 (Fla. 2008). In L.M. v. State, for example, the Third District Court of Appeal held that an anonymous telephone tip that two black males (providing a clothing description) were involved in a burglary in progress at a school was insufficient and unreliable because upon arriving at the location and finding juveniles matching the description, the officers did not observe any illegal conduct to corroborate any of the information contained in the tip. 694 so.2d 118, 119 (Fla. 3rd DCA 1997).

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