The police got an anonymous tip saying I was engaged in illegal activity. As a result, I was stopped in the street, had my belongings and person searched, and then arrested. Is this legal?

Maybe not.

Every state has its own laws and regulations on how law enforcement officials may use anonymous tips. In North Carolina, the rule has two parts:

  • The anonymous tip must come from a source that is reliable and credible.
  • There must be additional information available to the police to corroborate this tip before they may act on it.

An arrest based on an anonymous tip is good only if both of these provisions are satisfied. That may be a hard position for the prosecution to maintain in your case.

Reliable and credible?

It’s difficult to see how an informant can be both anonymous and credible. If the informant snitches regularly enough to the police to have a track record for reliability, then the police surely know something about who he is. If the informant does not have a history of working with law enforcement, then there are no grounds for the police to decide the tip is credible.

In many cases, informants snitch on other people in hopes of gaining a reward from law enforcement officers—either a cash payment or preferential treatment in their own criminal cases. But a criminal can hardly ask to trade information for reduced charges or shorter jail time for a North Carolina felony conviction and still remain an anonymous informant. Cash payoffs may serve to induce the informant to set other people up—for instance, by carrying firearms, illegal drugs, or large sums of cash where police may make an arrest.

Is the information corroborated?

A 2000 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Florida v. J.L. established limits on the police use of anonymous tips. The tip can’t merely describe a person or his clothing, the Court decided, but must provide information on the illegal conduct the person is doing.

In North Carolina, the police must have additional corroborating evidence that tends to confirm the tip before they can act. What this might entail is a little vague. “The reliability of an anonymous tip is determined by assessing the totality of the circumstances as to what the officer knew before making the stop,” said the North Carolina Court of Appeals in the 2009 case North Carolina v. Edgar Bedolla Garcia. Even though the rule is unclear, there is plenty of room for a defense lawyer to argue that the police did not have sufficient supporting evidence to make an arrest.

About poisonous trees...and your legal defense

What happens if the police rely improperly on an anonymous tip, and that leads to an incriminating search or to an arrest?

If your North Carolina criminal defense lawyer is doing his job right, that evidence should be suppressed—that is, excluded from your trial. Because the fundamental search is based on faulty respect for your legal rights, anything that the police find is considered “fruit of the poisonous tree”—faulty evidence that cannot be used against you.

Don’t risk being convicted based on evidence that should have been excluded from your trial. Call 877-593-4233 today to connect with Speaks Law Firm in Wilmington. Our aggressive criminal defense team is ready to find you the best outcome available for your case. Call toll-free to learn how we can help you.

R. Clarke Speaks
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Trial Lawyer and Founder of Speaks Law Firm, P.C.