Written by Tony Harrison, President of the Public Safety Group and chair of APCO International's Commercial Advisory Council. He has been in public safety for more than 20 years. Prior to serving with the Public Safety Group, he was a supervisor for the Oklahoma City Police Department.
Let's say you receive a call from a person following a drunk driver or a caller tells you that they know a person inside a specific house has drugs or that a person on the street has a gun. In each case, your caller wants to remain anonymous. You'll dispatch all of these calls in accordance with your local policies and procedure. However, does your officer, after they arrive on scene, have the authority to take enforcement action without any further information? According to the U.S. Supreme Court, it just may depend on you.
In a recent article in Law and Order, Randy Means and Pam McDonald examined the issue of what police officers can do with anonymous calls. The authority an officer has may very well depend on your ability to gain information from that anonymous call. McDonald and Means examined a few court cases. The first was Alabama v. White. In this case, the anonymous caller stated that Ms. White would be leaving a specific apartment at a specific time to go to a specific motel in a Plymouth station wagon with a broken taillight and they would have cocaine in a brown attache case. Officers responded, located the car and followed it until they were close to the motel. They stopped her and found cocaine in her car. The Supreme Court ruled that the tip was corroborated by independent police work that provided reasonable suspicion for the stop. The court said the caller obviously had insider knowledge of the situation and the police had been able to corroborate significant aspects of the caller's statements.
In Florida v. J.L., the Court ruled that the anonymous tip lacked sufficient reliability to justify police action (a Terry stop and frisk: under Terry, a police officer may stop a person and perform a limited weapons pat-down if the officer has observed suspicious behavior that would justify making such an examination.). In Florida v. J.L., the caller stated a young black male standing at a location wearing a plaid shirt was carrying a gun. The police located three black males at the location, only one wearing a plaid shirt. The officer approached him, frisked him and seized a gun. The Court said this was an illegal search because the credibility was not established. The caller did not explain how he knew there was a gun or provide other inside knowledge or predictive information that the police could corroborate. The caller did not provide information that could be tested by police to support the credibility of the caller. If the caller could have provided information about the gun or other information that a person driving by would not have known, it would have made the caller more credible.
With anonymous callers about drunk drivers, the U.S. Supreme Court has not given guidance in this area. However, most state courts have upheld the need to make investigative traffic stops on allegedly drunk or erratic drivers even when police have not personally witnessed traffic violations. The reason that most state Supreme Courts have held that officers don't have to witness traffic violations is because of the imminent danger of having a drunk driver on the road. In Virginia, however, the court has a position requiring police to personally observe driving that indicates the driver is intoxicated. Most states don't require this.
What Does All This Mean to Communications?
With anonymous calls, collect as much information as possible:
- How does the person know what they are reporting?
- Can they provide you with inside information, such as where the person is going or where they came from, descriptive information of the drugs or weapons or location of drugs or weapons?
- Can they provide predictive information, such as when the person will leave, where the person is going or what they will be driving?
The more information you can obtain from the anonymous caller, the better the chance your officer will have the information to make an arrest that will stand up to court review. These cases illustrate the importance of a well-trained communications officer and your ability to elicit information from callers. Your role as the first, first responder is critical.