In Florida, the police are not allowed to stop a vehicle without probable cause to believe the person committed a traffic violation or at least reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. Most stops are easily justified by the police with testimony that the driver was speeding, ran a red light or in violation of any other traffic law. However, if the police officer wants to stop a vehicle for another reason, the police officer must articulate a specific legal basis to do so.
In a recent case near Jacksonville, Florida, the police received an anonymous call of a disturbance at a residence. The caller neither provided his name nor any specifics as to criminal activity. The police officer arrived at the location as the defendant was driving away. The police officer motioned for the defendant to stop his vehicle and drove in front of it, blocking its path. Thereafter, the police officer recognized the driver as someone on probation whose driver’s license was suspended and arrested him.
The criminal defense attorney filed a motion to suppress arguing that the police officer had no legal basis to stop the defendant who was driving away. When the police officer stopped the defendant and blocked his vehicle, this was considered a seizure under the law. The police officer must have a legal basis to effect such a seizure, such as specific information that the defendant was involved in criminal activity at the time.
The court found that there was no legal basis to stop the defendant in his vehicle. An anonymous tip does not provide the legal basis to conduct a stop of a suspect. An anonymous tip lacks the reliability necessary to justify a seizure. If the person fails to provide his/her name to police, that indicates a lack of reliability as anyone can tell the police anything for any reason if it is done anonymously. The other problem with the tip is that it did not provide any specific information as to criminal activity. A general complaint regarding a disturbance is not going to be specific enough to justify a seizure of a suspect.
In a situation like this, the police are always free to go to the location mentioned in the tip and investigate. However, unless they observe some signs of criminal activity on their own, an anonymous tip of a general problem is not going to be a basis for a stop or seizure. Because the police officer stopped the defendant without any specific indications of wrongdoing, the stop was determined to be unlawful and the case was thrown out.
Ironically, because the police officer recognized the defendant and knew he had a suspended license, if the police officer had just let the defendant pass and recognized him without stopping him, the police officer would have been authorized to stop the defendant at that point and arrest him for driving with a suspended license.