Text-a-Tip: Anonymous Tips and the Police

The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article One Paragraph Seven of the New Jersey Constitution protect the individual's right against unwanted contact with the police.

I blogged about citizen-police encounters here, here, and here, explaining this freedom we enjoy in America, and how increasing degrees of suspicious circumstances tend to mitigate against this right.

An anonymous tip may lead to an unwanted encounter with the police. An anonymous tip involves an individual whom the police do not know providing information. This recent article is about anonymous text messages as tips for the police.

This technology is intended to encourage the public to assist the government in its police work. But the police may not act on tips like these unless certain factors are established about the informant:
  1. Her veracity must be known,
  2. Her reliability must be confirmed, and
  3. her basis of knowledge must ‎support the reported information.

Absent these criteria, the police must not infringe on an individual's right to be left alone.‎

These three elements are flexible guideposts for commonsense, practical determinations whether contraband or evidence is located in a particular ‎place. An anonymous tip ‎alone, with scant exception, never justifies an unwanted encounter with the police.

The first prong involves veracty. New ‎Jersey courts assume veracity when the tipster is a law-abiding citizen. Citizen-informants ‎and law enforcement officials seem to share similar motivations for achieving similar goals.

The second prong reviews the tipster's reliability. To establish this, the police must verify the tip through an independent investigation that corroborates the tip. As indicated above, the anonymous tip alone almost never provides legal justification for an unwanted encounter with the police. These ‎additional steps by the police, however, fill this gap.‎

Finally, the third prong probes the tipster's basis of knowledge. This determination requires courts to consider the tip itself. Various factors, taken individually or together, guide the determination ‎of the basis of knowledge. Courts may:

  • Inquire as to the nature and details in the tip ‎itself. The contents of the tip may demonstrate the trustworthiness of the informant's knowledge.
  • Consider whether the tip predicts hard-to-know future events. This type of information may demonstrate that the informant has personal knowledge of the alleged criminal conduct.
  • Apply these factors as part of the totality of circumstances before concluding whether the police had legal justification to infringe on the individual's right to be left alone.

As mentioned above, this article is about Text-a-Tip programs for tipsters to help police. Some cell phones limit text messages to 160 characters. Courts look at anonymous tips to find who the tipster observed, what the tipster perceived, when the alleged events took place, where the alleged events occurred, and how the people behaved. As a result, the Text-a-Tip program might simply be a political expedient while failing to provide evidence that will hold up in court.