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Reasonable Suspicion and Anonymous Tips

Anonymous Tips in General: Anonymous tips are often critical in the investigation and prosecution of DUI cases. Along with the widespread use of cell phones, coupled with substantial public media campaigns to “Report Drunk Driving,” traffic stops are frequently made on the basis of anonymous tips. The number of traffic stops based on “911” tips has risen substantially in the past two decades with the near ubiquitous use of cell phones. In Alabama, the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA) partners with the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA) each year for the “Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over” campaigns which typically take place around major holidays, due to the higher anticipated rates of impaired driving that usually occur around those holidays.

Caselaw in Alabama regarding stops made by law enforcement officers of vehicles after receiving information via anonymous tipsters in the post Terry v. Ohio world are typically measured under Alabama v. White, 496 U.S. 325 (1990). In that landmark case, police detectives in Montgomery, Alabama received information via an anonymous phone call through the Department’s “secret witness” tip line that a certain individual identified as Vanessa Rose White would be leaving a numbered apartment at an apartment complex at a specified time and in a specified vehicle, including the color, make and model of the vehicle, the license plate number, and the fact the vehicle’s taillight lens was cracked. The identification even included a description of Ms. White’s dress. In addition, the anonymous tipster relayed information that the subject would be carrying an ounce of cocaine and would travel to a certain specified location, a cheap motel located on Mobile Highway in west Montgomery. MPD detectives established surveillance on the apartment and shortly thereafter observed an individual meeting the description of described subject leave the apartment complex in the described vehicle, taking the most direct route to the location described. The MPD detectives eventually conducted a stop in proximity of her final destination. The lead detective confronted the suspect and “informed her that she had been stopped because she was suspected of carrying cocaine in the vehicle” and requested consent to search. Ms. White consented to a search of the vehicle and was subsequently arrested for and convicted of possession of marijuana and cocaine. The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals reversed White’s conviction and held that the police officers did not have sufficient reasonable suspicion necessary under the then prevailing Terry standard in order to make the initial stop; therefore, White’s motion to suppress the evidence of narcotics possession should have been granted. The State of Alabama sought certiorari to the Alabama Supreme Court but was denied on a vote of 7-2, with Justice Maddox writing a forceful dissent to the denial of certiorari.

The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari to the State of Alabama in order to address discrepancies between state and federal courts over the permissible use of anonymous tips to conduct a Terry stop. The Court relied heavily on the rationale of Illinois v. Gates, 426 U.S. 213 (1983) which adopted a “totality of the circumstances” approach to anonymous tipsters to establish probable cause to secure a search warrant. The Court employed the same totality of the circumstances approach in Alabama v. White by illustrating the anonymous tipster had access to verifiable information that not just anyone could have known, and that the information checked out under scrutiny prior to initiation of police action. The Court held: “Thus, it is not unreasonable to conclude in this case that the independent corroboration by the police of significant aspects of the informer’s predictions imparted some degree of reliability to the other allegations made by the caller.” White, 496 U.S. at 331-32, 110 S. Ct. at 2417. The Court reversed the judgment of the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals and held that under a “totality of the circumstances the anonymous tip, as corroborated, exhibited sufficient indicia of reliability to justify the investigatory stop of respondent’s car.”

The most important factors listed by the Court in its reasoning were those factors relayed by the anonymous tipster and subsequently verified by the officers prior to the traffic stop that pointed to the subject’s “future behavior.” The Court found that such “inside information” crucial – “[b]ecause only a small number of people are generally privy to an individual’s itinerary, it is reasonable for police to believe that a person with access to such information is likely to also have access to reliable information about that individual’s illegal activities.” White, 496 U.S. at 332, 110 S. Ct. at 2417.

Alabama v. White set a national standard to evaluate anonymous tips and tipsters and, like Illinois v. Gates, rejected the older Aguilar-Spinelli standard where both the veracity of the informant and the veracity of the information had to be separately and independently evaluated before undertaking a Fourth Amendment seizure. The more holistic approach of the “totality of the circumstances” evaluation of anonymous tips was the better reasoned standard. The “totality of the circumstances” based on all the information available to the officer at the time of the seizure therefore became the national standard to evaluate anonymous tip seizure cases.

The issue of using anonymous tips for impaired driving came to the forefront in this state in 2006, when the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals addressed the issue of an anonymous tipster reporting an incident of alleged impaired driving in Cottrell v. State, 971 So. 2d 735 (Ala. Crim. App. 2006). In Cottrell, a Tuscaloosa Police Department officer was flagged down by an unidentified driver while on patrol, and the officer was informed that, “a blue Chevrolet Lumina automobile was ‘swerving all over the road.’” The unidentified driver also stated that he had seen each of the car’s three occupants, all black males, drinking beer. Shortly thereafter, and just a short distance from the point of initial contact, the TPD officer made a stop of the described vehicle, testifying that it took “a little time for the vehicle to stop.” Cottrell was driving the Lumina at the time of the stop and consented to a search of the vehicle. When the three occupants of the vehicle were ordered to step out, the TPD officer then noticed a case of beer, “stuck in a hole between the backseat and the opening to the trunk.” On opening the driver’s door, the officer noticed a handgun sticking out from beneath the seat. In addition, the officer noticed that the serial number of the revolver had been filed off. The main issue raised by the defense at the trial level was that the officer did not “personally observe any illegal activity before the stop and that the sole basis for the stop was the complaint by the anonymous tipster.” The defendant’s motion to suppress was denied by the circuit court.

The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals compared the facts of Cottrell’s case with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2000 ruling in Florida v. J.L, 529 U.S. 266 (2000) where the Court addressed, “whether an anonymous telephone tip that an individual was at a certain location and was carrying a gun was sufficient to stop the individual and conduct a search.” The Supreme Court ultimately held in Florida v. J.L. that the anonymous telephone tip without additional precise and predictive information lacked “sufficient reliability to justify the stop.” The Court of Criminal Appeals pointed out the primary difference between the specific facts of the two cases when it stated, “First, in this case the informant did not anonymously telephone the police; instead he flagged down a police officer from his vehicle as the officer was passing in his patrol car. The informant’s identity was readily apparent by the license plate on his car, and the informant could have been held accountable for any misinformation he relayed to the police officer.” Cottrell, 971 So. 2d at 738.

The court further noted that at the time, even though the issue of an anonymous tipster had not yet been settled in an Alabama appellate court, the trial court relied heavily on the opinion in United States v. Wheat, 278 F. 3d 722 (8th Cir. 2001) in crafting its decision to deny the defendant’s motion to suppress. In Wheat, “An anonymous caller provided an extensive description of a vehicle that, based on his contemporaneous eyewitness observations, he believed was being operated dangerously, and cited specific examples of moving violations.” When the officer in Wheat stopped the vehicle, all the details relayed by the anonymous caller were verified. The 8th Circuit held that the stop made by the officer was sufficient because, “[u]nder the totality of the circumstances, he had reasonable suspicion to do so, and the stop was valid under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments.” Cottrell, 971 So. 2d at 745. The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals held that, “[i]n the interest of public safety, an officer should be able to stop a driver and determine whether he or she is, indeed driving while intoxicated. The minimal intrusion caused by such a brief, investigatory stop is slight compared to the potential risk of harm or even death to the public.” The court stated that it relied on the factors from Wheat in making its decision: “the quantity and quality of the information furnished by the informant, the length of time between the informant’s tip and police contact with the potential drunk driver, and the informant’s basis of knowledge.” Id.

Summation: The law of anonymous tips and anonymous tipsters regarding alleged “drunk driving” in Alabama is largely examined by use of the “totality of the circumstances” test and is determined on the facts of each case. This reasonable-suspicion inquiry ultimately hinges on “both the content of information possessed by police and its degree of reliability.” U.S. v. Bruce, 977 F. 3d 1112 (11th Cir. 2020) quoting Alabama v. White, 496 U.S. 325 at 330 (1990). Trial courts will use a “totality of the circumstances” approach in determining whether information relayed by an anonymous tipster is sufficient to justify making a Terry stop of an alleged drunk driver. The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals in Cottrell v. State relied on factors listed in United States v. Wheat in determining whether an anonymous tip was sufficient. These factors include: 1) the quantity of the information provided by the tipster; 2) the quality of the information provided by the tipster; 3) the length of time between the informant’s tip and police contact with the potential drunk driver; and 4) the tipster’s basis of knowledge.

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Montgomery, Alabama 36117
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