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Can the Police Stop You Based on an Anonymous 911 Tip?

The Fourth Amendment guarantees your right to be free from “unreasonable” police stops. In plain terms, the police cannot randomly stop you without a reasonable suspicion that you might be guilty of a crime, such as drunk driving. But can that reasonable suspicion be based on something like an anonymous tip from a 911 call?

Court of Appeals Uphold Anne Arundel Defendant’s Drunk Driving Conviction

The short answer is “yes.” A recent decision from the Maryland Court of Appeals, Trott v. State, provides a longer explanation. In this case, an anonymous driver called 911 in Anne Arundel County and told the dispatcher that there was an “intoxicated driver” at a specific location. The tipster provided the address as well as the vehicle’s color and license plate number.

Approximately eight minutes later, a police officer arrived at the specified address, a liquor store, after receiving the information from dispatch. The officer observed a silver Honda parked in front of the store, which had the license number given by the tipster. The officer proceeded to initiate a stop of the Honda’s driver. During the stop, the officer said he smelled a “strong odor” of alcohol on the driver’s breath. The driver then admitted he “had consumed two beers and a shot.” The officer then administered a field sobriety test, which led to the driver’s arrest.

The driver–now the defendant–argued in court that the officer’s stop was illegal because he “lacked a reasonable, articulable suspicion” of criminal activity. More specifically, the defendant said the officer could not justify the stop based solely on the 911 caller’s anonymous tip. The judge disagreed and allowed the evidence gathered during the stop to be admitted at trial. The defendant was then convicted of drunk driving and sentenced to three years probation.

The Court of Appeals agreed to review the legality of the stop. The Court ultimately agreed with the trial judge that the officer’s actions were constitutional. After considering the “totality of the circumstances,” the Court of Appeals said the anonymous tip “provided sufficient indicia of reliability” to give the officer a “particularized and objective basis for suspecting ongoing criminal activity” when he stopped the defendant. Notably, the caller provided a specific “make, model, and license plate” for the allegedly intoxicated driver’s vehicle, and the police arrived “within minutes of receiving the call and observed the vehicle parked at a liquor store.” Given these facts, the officer’s decision to initiate a stop of the defendant was reasonable and did not violate his constitutional rights.

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One other thing to note from this case: The defendant made voluntary admissions to the officer that he had been drinking. This is always a mistake. Remember, you have the right to remain silent when stopped for questioning by the police, even if you are not placed under arrest. Never admit to anything that will only serve to make the officer more suspicious.

This article has been provided by the Law office of Robert Castro. For more information or questions contact our office to speak to an experienced lawyer at (301)705-5137.