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Can I be arrested based on an anonymous tip?

Maybe, but a tipster can’t just “call in” an arrest—police must prove an anonymous tip is reliable before they act on it.

In the real world, an anonymous tipster needs a crystal ball—and verification by police that the tipster is telling the truth. 

Evidence Police Need to Act on an Anonymous Tip

Courts are mainly concerned with the reliability of anonymous tips. Plainly stated, the law doesn’t like these shadowy figures—maintaining a secret identity makes it easy to lie. So, the law’s installed some protections.

Before the police can rely on an anonymous tip, basically two things must happen: 

  • The tipster must reveal their crystal ball and predict how the suspect will act in the future.
  • Police have to verify it. 

Let’s see how it works using real cases. 

When an Anonymous Tip Proved Reliable

In a 1990 United States Supreme Court case called Alabama v. White, the Supreme Court validated an arrest based on an anonymous phone tip. Why? The caller gave highly specific information about what the suspect would do in the future. The caller told police the suspect would:

  1. Be at a specific place—an apartment complex.
  2. Leave at a specific time.
  3. Go to another specific place—a motel.
  4. Carry a certain amount of drugs on her in a specific place—about an ounce of cocaine in a brown suitcase.
  5. Drive a specific vehicle—a brown Plymouth station wagon with a broken taillight. 

Next, and most important, police verified the tip. They found the car at the stated apartment complex, followed the suspect as she drove directly to the motel, and stopped the car shortly before she reached it. A search revealed weed in a suitcase and cocaine in the suspect’s purse. 

Note the Court approved the arrest despite the fact the tipster didn’t get every detail right. Mainly, the tipster was wrong about where the drugs were. Only weed was in the suitcase, and cocaine was in her purse, not the suitcase.

The major importance of this case is that the Supreme Court ruled a tipster’s ability to predict future behavior shows the tipster knows inside information about a suspect’s business. When police verified that information, they had reason to believe the caller was honest and well-informed—justifying the stop.

When an Anonymous Tipster Wasn’t Reliable 

In 2000, the South Carolina Court of Appeals overturned a drug conviction based on an anonymous tip in a case called State v. Green. In that case, an anonymous caller gave police the suspect’s name, a description of his car, the location he would leave from, and promised he had lots of money and drugs.

The Court was unimpressed. It ruled the tipster gave no predictive information. It determined the tipster’s information was easily discoverable. The place the suspect left only had two possible exits. The investigating officer had no reason to suspect criminal activity aside from the tip. 

In declaring this anonymous tipster unreliable, the Court blasted the risk of lying created by police relying on it: “The only information available to the officer was the statement of an unknown, unaccountable informant who neither explained how he knew about the money and narcotics, nor supplied any basis for the officer to believe he had inside information about Green. Since the telephone call was anonymous, the caller did not place his credibility at risk and could lie with impunity. Therefore, we cannot judge the credibility of the caller, and the risk of fabrication becomes unacceptable.”  

Don’t overlook this. It didn’t even matter that the tip turned out to be right. The Court dismissed the case anyway. 

You Need a Determined, Skilled Attorney to Investigate Your Tipster

If an anonymous tipster jeopardized your rights and future, you need to make sure you hire a criminal defense attorney who knows how to evaluate the tipster’s knowledge to make the most powerful arguments that police never should have relied on him. That could be the difference between winning and losing for you. To schedule a free strategy session to start building your defense, call toll free at 888-230-1841.

 

Rob Usry
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Rob is a Spartanburg, South Carolina personal injury and criminal defense lawyer.