A criminal defense client asked us whether the police can conduct an investigatory stop, whether on foot or in a vehicle, based on an anonymous tip. For instance, let’s assume that an unidentified person calls the police and says that person X is out on the street with illegal drugs in his possession or person Y is driving recklessly and may be drunk driving. Can the police in Florida approach either of these “suspects” and stop them to investigate them solely based on the anonymous tip? The answer is no.
Each of us has a Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures by the police. That means the police cannot just stop someone without reasonable suspicion, i.e. specific facts, that a crime is taking place or is about the take place. When the police get a tip from some anonymous person, that by itself is not reliable enough to justify a police stop. The police would have the right to investigate further, but can only stop the “suspect” if the police officer observes certain facts that confirmed the tip him/herself .
For instance, in the case of the person who possessed illegal drugs, if the police officer observed the person making what appeared to be hand to hand drug transactions, that may be a basis to stop the person and investigate further. In the case of the alleged drunk driver, if the police located the vehicle and saw that the driver was swerving or speeding or otherwise driving recklessly, that would be sufficient for a stop and subsequent DUI investigation. However, if the police officer located the vehicle and the driver was driving appropriately, a stop based solely on the anonymous tip would be illegal.