In many cases, such as gun cases or drug cases, law enforcement agencies rely on the public to report criminal or suspicious activity to the police or emergency phone line. Tips received by police from the public can help an officer form reasonable suspicion that someone has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a crime. With reasonable suspicion, police officers may be able to stop, detain, question, and search a suspect without a warrant. Because of this, tips from the public are often used by police officers to justify warrantless searches.
Although a phone-in tip can help an officer have a valid reasonable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot, the existence of a tip, particularly an anonymous tip, is not in itself sufficient to justify performing a search without a warrant. The New York Court of Appeals, New York’s highest court, recently reversed a trial court ruling that permitted an officer to search a car without a warrant based on a phoned-in tip.
The defendant from the recently decided appeal was riding in a friend’s vehicle when they were stopped by police. According to the facts discussed in the appellate opinion, the arresting officer had received a radio call from dispatch that someone in a vehicle matching the description of the van the suspect was riding was reported to be visibly brandishing a firearm. Based on the tip and the vehicle description, the police stopped the vehicle and performed a search for weapons, without consent or a warrant. After a firearm was found in the defendant’s possession, he was arrested and charged with a gun offense.