4th Amendment case by Hon. Amy Coney Barrett. Anonymous 911 call enough reasonable suspicion?

Hon. Amy Coney Barrett is the front-runner to be nominated to the Supreme Court. Let’s take a look at one criminal law and fourth amendment case authored by the judge in the 7th Circuit.

The case is United States v. Watson, 900 F.3d 892 (7th Cir. 2018).
The police received an anonymous 911 call from a 14-year-old who borrowed a stranger’s phone and reported seeing “boys” “playing with guns” by a “gray and greenish Charger” in a nearby parking lot. A police officer drove to the address and saw in the parking lot “a Charger with about four guys sitting in it.” Using his patrol car, he blocked the Charger before approaching it on foot. All of the occupants denied having any weapons in the car.

Within nine minutes, three other officers arrived in response to Boleware’s (officer’s) request for backup, and each officer blocked a car door. At that point, Boleware told the other officers to take each occupant out of the car and frisk him for weapons. When another officer ordered Watson, the front seat passenger, out of the car, Watson threw a gun onto the backseat floor. Boleware grabbed the gun and noticed another gun inside the pouch in front of the backseat passenger.

Watson was charged with possessing a firearm as a felon, see 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). He moved to suppress the two firearms recovered from the car.

Watson argued that Boleware unlawfully seized him by blocking the Charger without reasonable suspicion that a crime had occurred or was imminent. The 911 caller, Watson said, reported only gun possession, which is lawful in Indiana, and did not establish the reliability of his anonymous tip. The government countered that under Navarette v. California, 572 U.S. 393, 134 S.Ct. 1683, 188 L.Ed.2d 680 (2014), the anonymous tip was reliable and established reasonable suspicion.

Under the Fourth Amendment, an officer cannot stop someone to investigate potential wrongdoing without reasonable suspicion that “criminal activity may be afoot.” Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 30, 88 S.Ct. 1868, 20 L.Ed.2d 889 (1968). Reasonable suspicion turns on “the totality of the *895 circumstances” and whether the officer had “a particularized and objective basis for suspecting the particular person stopped of criminal activity.” Navarette, 134 S.Ct. at 1687 (quoting United States v. Cortez, 449 U.S. 411, 417–18, 101 S.Ct. 690, 66 L.Ed.2d 621 (1981) ).

Because anonymous tips relayed to a police officer “seldom demonstrate [ ] the informant’s basis of knowledge or veracity,” they alone usually are not reliable enough to establish reasonable suspicion. Florida v. J.L., 529 U.S. 266, 270, 120 S.Ct. 1375, 146 L.Ed.2d 254 (2000) (quoting Alabama v. White, 496 U.S. 325, 329, 110 S.Ct. 2412, 110 L.Ed.2d 301 (1990) ). But the Supreme Court, in its most recent anonymous-tip case (which it called a “close case”), identified three factors that make an anonymous tip reliable enough to create reasonable suspicion: the tipster (1) asserts eyewitness knowledge of the reported event; (2) reports contemporaneously with the event; and (3) uses the 911 emergency system, which permits call tracing. Navarette, 134 S.Ct. at 1689–90.

In this case: 1. First and most significantly, Navarette’s rationale for deeming 911 calls reliable has much less force here. Here, the caller borrowed a stranger’s phone, limiting the usefulness of the system’s tracing ability. 2. The caller’s report in this case about the presence of guns did not create a reasonable suspicion of an ongoing crime, because carrying a firearm in public is permitted with a license in Indiana. See IND. CODE § 35-47-2-1(a). 3. The circumstances, in this case, did not necessitate an emergency response. The anonymous caller reported no tense situation, like a verbal argument or physical confrontation, that suggested violence would erupt.

Police were right to respond to the anonymous call by coming to the parking lot to determine what was happening. But determining what was happening and immediately seizing people upon arrival are two different things, and the latter was premature.

Full opinion here: https://casetext.com/case/united-states-v-watson-250

Anton Vialtsin, Esq.
LAWSTACHE™ LAW FIRM | Criminal Defense and Business Law

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