Justices bar gun search on tip alone

Police may not frisk for firearms unless other conditions met

March 29, 2000|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- A unanimous Supreme Court barred police yesterday from stopping and frisking someone to look for a gun based solely on an anonymous tip that the person has a weapon.

Before officers may accost someone after receiving such a tip, the court said, they must have information to show that the tip or the tipster is reliable and that the subject of the tip is doing something illegal.

The court refused to create what it called a "firearms exception" to the constitutional limit on police searches -- an exception that would allow officers to use every tip about gun possession to justify a stop and frisk.

Under the Constitution, the court said, officers must have some basis for suspecting that a crime has occurred before they may accost someone. A gun exception to that principle, it said, would "rove too far."

The National Association of Police Organizations, which represents 220,000 officers across the country, said the ruling would "significantly increase the danger to law enforcement officers and the general public."

The association, which filed a brief supporting police action based on tips, said the ruling "severely limited the authority of police to stop and search someone for a gun" based on a tip.

James Tomkovicz, a University of Iowa law professor who filed a brief on behalf of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, conceded that "if police honestly obey the decision, it will prevent a certain amount of detection of firearm violence."

But that is a product not of the ruling but of the Constitution itself, Tomkovicz added. Under the Fourth Amendment's ban on unreasonable searches, the professor said, "police need an objective justification, something more than an inkling, a hunch."

The justices said they were concerned about encouraging false tips to police if they were to rule that officers could act based solely on "bare-boned tips."

Allowing police to act just because they get a tip that someone has a gun "would enable any person seeking to harass another to set in motion an intrusive, embarrassing police search of the targeted person," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the court.

Moreover, if a tip about carrying a gun were enough to justify police frisks, Ginsburg wrote, "it would be reasonable to maintain that the police should similarly have discretion to frisk based on bare-boned tips about narcotics."

The case that led to the ruling involved a 15-year-old Miami youth who was charged with illegal possession of a gun. The weapon had been found during a police frisk set off by an anonymous tip.

In 1995, a Miami police officer was dispatched to a bus stop in front of a pawn shop, based on an anonymous call. The caller had said a young man wearing a plaid shirt was carrying a concealed gun. The officer went to the scene and frisked a youth wearing a plaid shirt; she found a concealed gun.

The Supreme Court said yesterday that the mere fact that the information proved true did not make the frisk constitutional.

Such information, Ginsburg wrote, helps "the police correctly identify the person whom the tipster means to accuse." But the tip "does not show that the tipster has knowledge of concealed criminal activity," she said, and officers must have some suspicion of crime to justify their moving in.

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