Justices to review searches by police resulting from tips

Florida case arose from finding youth carrying a gun

November 02, 1999|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Anonymous tips may be all that police have when they go after a suspicious individual, but it is not clear that they can frisk someone just because of a tip about a hidden gun. Yesterday, the Supreme Court said it would settle that issue.

Three decades ago, the court ruled that police may stop and frisk an individual only if they have solid reason to believe the person has committed a crime, or is about to do so.

The dispute the justices now face, in a new case from Florida, is whether police may frisk a person without such a reason if they have been told that the individual is carrying a weapon.

The state of Florida argued in an appeal that police should not have to wait for an individual to pull out a gun or start to use it before they may act, so long as a tipster gives them a clear description of the person said to be carrying a concealed weapon.

Police must have a means to protect themselves and the public from the dangers associated with armed suspects, the state contended.

The Florida Supreme Court ruled in December, however, that if a tipster gives police only innocent details about a person suspected of having a gun -- such as the clothes being worn or the place the individual can be found -- that is not enough to support a stop-and-frisk.

Courts in other states have said that if the tip is about a gun, police must be free to check it quickly, using a stop and a pat-down of the individual to protect their own safety and that of the public.

In the Florida case, police in Miami four years ago got a tip that one black youth standing around a bus stop with others had a concealed gun. The tipster said the one with the gun would be wearing a plaid shirt.

Officers went to the bus stop and approached the youth in the plaid shirt. He was patted down, and an officer noted the butt of a gun hanging out of a pants pocket.

The youth, who was under age 18, was arrested on a charge of being a minor illegally possessing a gun. The youth, identified in court papers only as "J. L.," was charged as a delinquent.

A final Supreme Court ruling on the case is expected by spring.

In an unrelated case, the court refused to review a Louisiana state court ruling that news organizations may be prosecuted criminally, under state wiretap law, if they publish eavesdropping tapes that they got from a source who made them illegally.

While the justices have ruled in the past that the media may not be punished for disclosing information that was obtained by legal means, they have never sorted out the legal risk for the media of publishing information that a source got illegally.

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