Can police walk up and search me based on an anonymous tip?

What do the police need to do to verify any anonymous tip or “crimestoppers” call?

Submitted by New Jersey Criminal Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark.

This case addresses what the police need to confirm any anonymous phone call to a crimestoppers hotline regarding a person committing a crime.  In this case a ‘Crime-Stoppers’ call came in about a person with a weapon in front of a store. The court analyzed the factual and legal requirements the police need to satisfy (in other words) independently confirming the facts of the anonymous tip before they conduct a ‘Terry’ investigatory person stop or a motor vehicle stop.

The unrecorded ‘crimestoppers’ hotline tip contained an anonymous call regarding a man in front of a liquor store in a certain location possessing a gun. The phone call identified the person as a black male wearing gray sweatpants with a white and gray hoodie.  The police went to the scene and identify numerous persons, between 5 and 8 guys, who were all told to put their hand out and lay down on the ground. Police officer(s) testified this defendant fit the “general description“ and was “acting in a suspicious manner“.  The question is whether the police obtained enough of an independent confirmation of the caller’s facts to stop this defendant and conduct a search of this defendant under the fourth amendment of the United States Constitution.

The actual question is whether the police had a reasonable and articulate basis to conduct a “Terry” stop of this defendant.  Said differently, did the police confirm the caller’s facts and obtain their own reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. The case law requires the police to have “reasonable suspicion of criminal activity” of the defendant for an investigative detention. The reasonable suspicion of criminal activity must be based on the officers reasonable and particular suspicion from the officers own assessment of the totality of the circumstances from his own observations.  An anonymous tip case requires the court must consider the informant’s veracity, reliability and basis of knowledge. The first step to court must undertake is analyzing the trustworthiness of the source, here the crimestoppers phone call. The reliability of the tip is part of the officers “totality of the circumstances“ a valuation of the fact that he observes when he comes to the scene. However, the anonymous tip alone is not enough to justify a stop because it itself lacks any veracity of reliability and basis of knowledge. As a result, the police when they come to a scene with an anonymous tip must independently verify the facts that were called in by matching the information with the officers observations.

In this case the prosecutor’s office argue that the Crime-Stoppers tip was verified because of the “matching description” found at the location by itself was enough. The court rejected this argument. The court did not accept the state’s contention that the validation of “nighttime” together with this particular defendant’s fixation on the police activity was validation of the anonymous tip.

The court turned to a US Supreme Court decision from 2000 that supported its position. In that case the police attempted to confirmed the  anonymous call facts by matching the description of a location. However, the police did not observe any firearms and the defendant made no threatening or otherwise unusual movements. The police proceeded to frisk that defendant finding a gun on him. The Supreme Court rejected the search finding that there was no “reasonable grounds to stop and frisk said defendant solely because of the anonymous tip.”  The anonymous tip without more was not reliable in it’s assertion of illegal activity.  Our appellate panel then turn to the New Jersey Supreme Court in another case which ruled, “an anonymous tip without more is rarely sufficient to establish a reasonable articulable suspicion of criminal activity.” The New Jersey Supreme Court further stated, that the office lacked a sufficient basis to detain a defendant and where the stop was based solely on the information furnished by an anonymous informant who provided no explanation or basis of knowledge for that information.”  However, on the other hand, our New Jersey Supreme Court has upheld and investigatory stop and frisk based on an anonymous tip when the officer testified he had particular knowledge of the defendant based on prior not narcotics arrest. The officer in that case testify that he was aware of the defendant and his association with narcotics activity, violent gangs and recent shootings. With that knowledge in hand, the officer had a particularized suspicion to approach that defendant who was acting nervous, tried to walk away, and then made movements of his hand towards his waistband.

In this case, the court determined there was nothing unusual about the defendant leaving the liquor store> The court rejected the defendant’s ‘interest’ in the police conduct at the scene. Further, the court ruled this defendant was not acting nervously were suspiciously. His minor “fixation” on the police activity was determined to not be enough to provide a reasonable articulable suspicion to conduct the detention in the first place. As a result, under the circumstances, the police lacked an objectively reasonable and articulate suspicion to detain this defendant under the totality of the circumstances threshold.

Jeffrey S. Hark, Esq.
609-471-1959. Cell
856-354-0050 Office

Criminal Civil Lawyer

Jeffrey Hark is a New Jersey Civil and Criminal Lawyer.

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