Anonymous Tips

How the U.S. Supreme Court Fogged-Up A Clear Legal Doctrine


In 2000 the U.S. Supreme Court held “[W]e hold that an anonymous tip lacking indicia of reliability … does not justify a stop and frisk whenever and however it alleges the illegal possession of a firearm.”. Florida v. J.L. 529 U.S. 266, 273 (2000)

Then fourteen years later in 2014, the court held “Even assuming for present purposes that the 911 call was anonymous, we conclude that the call bore adequate indicia of reliability for the officer to credit the caller’s account.”. Navarette v. California, 572 U.S. 393 (2014)

I will examine both cases then try to un-fog the fogged-up landscape of anonymous tips and how an officer should respond.

Florida v. J.L.

529 U.S. 266 (2000)

U.S. Supreme Court

On October 13, 1995 Miami-Dade Police received an anonymous tip that several young black males were standing at a bus stop in front of a pawn shop near 183rd Street and Northwest 24th Avenue, Miami, Florida, and that one of them was carrying a gun.

Bus stop where J.L. and two others were stopped by Officer Carmen Anderson and another female officer.

The anonymous caller gave a description of each person and said that the person carrying the gun had a plaid-looking shirt. Officer Carmen Anderson a fourteen-year veteran of MDPD and another female officer were dispatched to the location and arrived there within approximately six minutes. When Officer Anderson arrived, she saw three young black males standing at the bus stop in front of the pawn shop; one of the three was wearing a plaid shirt. Officer Anderson immediately approached the youth wearing the plaid shirt and asked him to put his hands up on the bus stop. The youth was later identified as J.L.  His real name is not given by the court as he was under eighteen at the time of the arrest.  As she began to frisk him, Officer Anderson felt the butt of a gun protruding from his left pocket. She then seized a gun and placed him under arrest. While Officer Anderson frisked J.L., the other officer frisked the two persons who were standing with J.L. at the bus stop which did not result in the discovery of any weapons.
J.L., who was then a few weeks shy of his 16th birthday, was charged in juvenile court with carrying a concealed firearm in violation of Fla. Stat. Ann. § 790.01 (1995), and possession of a firearm by a minor, in violation of Fla. Stat. Ann. § 790.22(3) (1995). J.L. moved to suppress the firearm on the ground that it was obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. The Florida district court granted the motion to suppress and the Florida Supreme Court upheld the suppression of the firearm.  The State of Florida/Miami-Dade Police appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court which held “[W]e hold that an anonymous tip lacking indicia of reliability … does not justify a stop and frisk whenever and however it alleges the illegal possession of a firearm.” Id at 273.

Prior to March 28, 2000 law enforcement officers most often would use anonymous tips to justify detentions and frisks.  So, did Officer Carmen Anderson do what most cops did at the time?  Yes, she did … and for fourteen years officers did not legally rely on anonymous tips.  Then on April 22, 2014 the U.S. Supreme Court issued Navarette v. California, 572 U.S. 393 (2014) and changed the landscape by adding a huge smokescreen in to what previously clear landscape had been.

Information for this article was obtained from: DOJ/Solictor General Amicus Brief, Docket number: No. 98-1993, Florida v. J.L., 529 U.S. 266 (2000) and oral arguments Florida v. J.L., 529 U.S. 266 (2000).

So for fourteen years law enforcement could not act upon an anonymous tip that was not corroborated.  The legal landscape was very clear; anonymous tips are inherently unreliable.  Then a caller in California reported that pick up truck almost drove her off the road.  The caller remains to this day anonymous.  In 2014 the legal landscape got fogged up by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Navarette v. California

572 U.S. 393 (2014)

U.S. Supreme Court

On Saturday August 23, 2008 at 3:47 p.m., a Mendocino County 911 dispatch team of Matia Moore and Sharon Odbert for the California Highway Patrol (CHP) received a call from another CHP dispatcher in neighboring Humboldt County. The Humboldt County dispatcher relayed a tip from a 911 caller, which the Mendocino County team recorded as follows: “‘Showing southbound Highway 1 at mile marker 88, Silver Ford 150 pickup. Plate of 8-David-94925. Ran the reporting party off the roadway and was last seen approximately five [minutes] ago.’ ” The Mendocino County team then broadcast that information to CHP officers at 3:47 p.m.

The F-150 shown here is an era-specific pick up truck.  The case does not state what year the pick up truck but does state it was silver and the Navarettes had thirty pounds of marijuana in the bed of the truck.

CHP Sergeant Francis and Officer Williams, each responded that they were enroute. Then, at 4 p.m., Sergeant Francis reported that he had just passed the pick-up truck near mile marker 69. He made a U-turn to follow the car. Shortly thereafter, Officer Williams reported that the pick-up truck and Sergeant Francis’s patrol car had passed him. Officer Williams made a U-turn to follow them as they headed south on the undivided two-lane highway. At about 4:05 p.m., at the entrance to MacKerricher State Park, Sergeant Francis pulled over the pick-up truck that the 911 caller had described, and Officer Williams pulled up behind both cars. Lorenzo Prado Navarette was the truck’s driver and Jose Prado Navarette, his brother, was the sole passenger. The officers approached the passenger side of the truck and asked the occupants for identification. After realizing that Lorenzo Prado Navarette had provided only a photocopy of his identification card, the officers returned to the driver’s side of the truck to request additional identification. The officers smelled marijuana from that location. The officers told Navarette’s to get out of the truck. They searched the vehicle, whereupon they found four large bags of marijuana in the truck bed, along with fertilizer, hand clippers, and oven bags. The marijuana totaled thirty pounds. The Navarette’s were charged and convicted of Transporting Marijuana and received 90 days in jail and three years of probation.

The Navarettes filed a Motion to Suppress at trial level which was denied. The California Court of Appeals also denied the Motion to Suppress so the Navarettes appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and they held “Under the totality of the circumstances, we find the indicia of reliability in this case sufficient to provide the officer with reasonable suspicion that the driver of the reported vehicle had run another vehicle off the road. That made it reasonable under the circumstances for the officer to execute a traffic stop.” Id at 404. The court provided four prongs for law enforcement and courts to evaluate anonymous tips and whether or not the tip can be acted upon:

  1. Caller to 911 must have first-hand knowledge.
  2. Caller must be reporting the incident as it occurs or immediately thereafter.
  3. Caller must give explicit and detailed description of the incident.
  4. Information must describe suspect is actively engaged in criminal activity.

Mr. Paul Kleven the attorney arguing on behalf of Mr. Navarette was the best advocate for the decision to be found on behalf of the state and law enforcement.  He significantly struggled during oral arguments to answer hypothetical questions; if a bomb was in a car or a kidnap child in the trunk of a car, both incidents beginning with an anonymous tip.  His answers were cringe worthy, completely unprepared.  He was asked what standard he would give if he was on the U.S. Supreme Court and he responded like the fifth grader who did not do his homework.

Information for this article was obtained from: Navarette v. California, 572 U.S. 393 (2014), Oral Arguments in Navarette v. California, 572 U.S. 393 (2014)

Lessons Learned:

  1. When law enforcement is given an anonymous tip the aforementioned four Navarette prongs must be applied and then the officer must make a determination to act upon the tip or not. What law enforcement must do when justifying an anonymous stop is to provide as much information to the court to push the case in to a Navarette analysis and not a J.L. analysis.
  1. There is no legally justified pat down for officer safety and there is no firearm exception to the Fourth Amendment. The U.S. Supreme Court opined in the J.L. case; “Firearms are dangerous, and extraordinary dangers sometimes justify unusual precautions. Our decisions recognize the serious threat that armed criminals pose to public safety; Terry‘s rule, which permits protective police searches on the basis of reasonable suspicion rather than demanding that officers meet the higher standard of probable cause, responds to this very concern. But an automatic firearm exception to our established reliability analysis would rove too far. Such an exception would enable any person seeking to harass another to set in motion an intrusive, embarrassing police search of the targeted person simply by placing an anonymous call falsely reporting the target’s unlawful carriage of a gun.”.  Id at 272.
  1. If there is not enough information in the anonymous tip that could not be corroborated the officer must be very careful to approach a suspect who may be armed. If the officer removes his/her firearm and the suspect sees that the officer is approaching with the firearm out of the holster it could be decided that the suspect was seized at the moment the officer approached.  If the court applies J.L. the detention would be unlawful. If the officer approaches with his/her firearm in the holster that could be a deadly result for the officer because action beats reaction.

The U.S. Supreme Court is firmly on the anonymous tips fence.  The J.L. holding when contrasted against the Navarette holding underscores why law enforcement is THE MOST challenging profession in America.

Does your agency train on Anonymous Tips?

Don’t fail your training.

Don’t let your training fail you.

Be safe, smart and objectively reasonable!

Robert H. Meader Esq.