Dealing with Anonymous Tips and Confidential Informants

There are many cases where a police investigation is initiated based on anonymous information regarding alleged illegal activity at a specific location. These anonymous tips often identify an individual or group of individuals who police may eventually stop, question, and even arrest. These anonymous tips may also cause police to utilize individuals in the area who have knowledge of these suspects or the location identified by the anonymous tips.

While law enforcement are permitted to use these tactics to identify and investigate crime, the law does not permit the government to prosecute a criminal defendant without some type of corroboration from independent witness. This corroboration would need to demonstrate a sufficient level of reliability to justify law enforcement’s intrusion on the criminal suspects privacy. The fourth and fourteenth amendment to the United States Constitution protects an individual’s right against an illegal search and seizure. In other words, an individual has a Constitutional right to privacy unless the police have some type of reasonable suspicion or probable cause to intrude on it.

Courts utilize a totality of the circumstances analysis if the prosecution attempts to use an anonymous tip in its case against a criminal defendant. In most situations a Court will not prohibit the use of an anonymous informant where the informant provides information regarding future movements of a suspect which actually occur. The introduction of this evidence, however, would require the prosecution to produce a witness, more than likely a police officer, to testify as to his receipt of the tip and his observations based on that tip. Even if police officers observe the activity that the anonymous individual said would occur, that activity must still indicate that a crime has occurred or was occurring at the time of the stop and arrest.

The law does protect individuals who do provide law enforcement with information leading to investigations and arrest but the prosecution is not permitted to keep the identity of these sources confidential without justification. Defense attorneys are permitted to petition a Court to compel the prosecution to reveal the identity of these sources. The identity of these sources, however, is not an absolute right and the defense must demonstrate that the identity or the contents of the informant’s communication with law enforcement is relevant and essential to the fair determination of a criminal defendant’s trial.

In many cases police will initiate an investigation based solely on a confidential informant’s knowledge of general criminal activity in a specific area. Police are permitted to utilize this information if they can demonstrate that they have relied on the confidential informant in the past and his or her information has led to subsequent convictions. In these situations it is important to keep in mind that defense counsel are permitted to test the veracity of the informant’s previous reliability. The defense can compel the prosecution to reveal information regarding these previous cases and the confidential informant’s role in those cases. Again, this is not an absolute right and defense counsel must make the appropriate motion to the Court to gain access to this information.

Anonymous tips and/or confidential informants often form the basis for police surveillance and search warrants. Search warrants require probable cause and without probable cause all evidence obtained as the result of a search warrant is considered fruit of the poisonous tree and inadmissible. Pennsylvania law is very clear on the use of confidential informant’s and anonymous tips (See Com. v. Hall, 451Pa.201 (1973) and Com. v. Carter, 427Pa.53 (1967). If you would like more information regarding this topic please feel free to contact our office.

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