Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Anonymous Payphone Call Creates "Reasonable Suspicion"

U.S. v. Gomez, United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit (released Oct. 7, 2010)

In Gomez, the Federal Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals looked at whether an anonymous call (from a payphone) can create "reasonable suspicion" sufficient to justify a traffic stop.  Under Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968), “police officers may stop and briefly detain an individual for investigative purposes if they have reasonable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot.”  When the officers conducting the stop act without a warrant, the Government bears the burden of proving reasonable suspicion.

In this case, the Court identified the factors that must be considered in deciding whether a tip provides reasonable suspicion to support a traffic stop, which include:

(1) the credibility and reliability of the informant;
(2) the specificity of the information contained in the tip or report;
(3) the extent to which the information in the tip or report can be verified by officers in the field; and
(4) whether the tip or report concerns active or recent activity.

The Court held that the 9-1-1 call in this case satisfied three of the four factors.  Specifically, the caller provided an extraordinary amount of detail regarding the suspect brandishing a pistol, to include: the color of the weapon, the location of the crime, details about the suspect’s race, age and weight, the make, model, and license plate number of the suspect’s vehicle, and the race and gender of the other passengers in the vehicle. Officers were subsequently able to verify a number of these claims, to include: all of the vehicle information, the race and gender of the other passengers, and to an extent, the location, as the car was stopped heading away from the scene of the crime a few minutes after the 9-1-1 call.

As to the remaining factor, the caller gave his name, phone number and address to the 9-1-1 operator. Although the address and phone number led to a pay phone, the court held that the officers reasonably believed that they were acting on a credible and reliable tip from a verifiable source rather than an "anonymous tip." The court noted that even if the caller were to be considered an “anonymous tipster” the officers still had reasonable suspicion to support the traffic stop based on the strength of the other 3 factors.