The Pennsylvania Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Price, holding that a very specific anonymous tip might provide the reasonable suspicion necessary for police to conduct a Terry stop. This case is a disastrous decision for civil liberties and Fourth Amendment rights which defies common sense and ignores decades of Pennsylvania Supreme Court and Superior Court precedent.
The Facts of Price
In Price, the defendant was charged with various firearms offenses including possession of a firearm by a prohibited person, firearms not to be carried without a license, and possession of a firearm in the City of Philadelphia. Price filed a motion to suppress the gun, and the trial court conducted a hearing on the motion.
At the motion to suppress hearing, the Commonwealth presented the testimony of a Philadelphia Police Officer. The officer testified that he was on routine patrol with his partner when he received a radio call to respond to the 5100 block of Willows Ave. The officer testified that he had been on the force for seven years, and he knew that the 5100 block of Willows Ave is an area where violent crime is prevalent. He testified that the radio call provided the information that a black male, wearing a white t-shirt and gray shorts, was driving a silver Lexus with a license plate reading GWL8569, and was carrying a firearm. The officer had also learned that the radio call was the result of a call to 911.
The officers drove to 51st and Willows Avenue within a minute of receiving the broadcast and found a silver Lexus stopped at a stop sign. The officers were able to see that the driver was a black male who was wearing a white t-shirt, and they saw that the license plate read GWL8568, meaning it differed only by one digit from the number provided to 911. The officers activated their lights and sirens and stopped the vehicle. The Lexus pulled over, and the officers approached the vehicle. They could then see that the defendant was wearing gray shorts in addition to the white t-shirt. The officers opened the door and asked the defendant to step out. He did, and as he got out, the officer could see that he had a large bulge in the stomach area of his waistband. The officers searched the defendant and found a gun in his waistband.
As the officers were recovering the gun, a woman approached them. She told police that she was the person who had called 911 and that they had arrested the right guy. She asked the officers if they had recovered the gun. The officers noted that at first, this woman was standing outside of the defendant’s view and seemed to be nervous. She later told them that she had called 911 because she saw the defendant with the gun and bullets. She told the officers that she saw the defendant put bullets in the trunk. Police asked the defendant if there was anything else in the car, and he confirmed that there were bullets in the trunk.
The trial court denied the motion to suppress. The defense argued that at the time of the stop, police were relying on an entirely anonymous radio call and had no way to verify whether the call, no matter how specific, contained accurate and reliable information. Decades of Pennsylvania case law, including Commonwealth v. Jackson and Commonwealth v. Hawkins, have held that anonymous tips do not provide police with any level of reasonable suspicion or probable cause to make a stop unless the police are able to corroborate that information prior to the stop. Nonetheless, relying on a recent United States Supreme Court case, the trial court found that police had reasonable suspicion to stop the defendant based on the 911 call. The court reasoned, possibly without supporting evidence, that the 911 call center in Philadelphia has caller ID and can track who made the call, thereby ensuring that calls to 911 are not actually anonymous. Because people know that they may be tracked when calling 911, the court reasoned, they have an incentive not to call in with fake accusations. Therefore, the court denied the motion to suppress, and the defendant was eventually convicted of all of the gun charges.
The Superior Court Appeal
The defendant appealed to the Pennsylvania Superior Court. Breaking with decades of precedent, the Superior Court affirmed the trial court’s reasoning. It also inexplicably concluded that because the 911 call center has caller ID, people would never call in incorrect information to 911 in order to harass someone else. Obviously, this reasoning is absurd and completely ignores the fact that most school-age children possess the technological prowess to use a “burner” phone or mask their true phone number or caller ID with an app. It also erroneously assumes that everyone knows (and cares) that their cell phone number could be tracked by 911 if they make a call. Accordingly, the court affirmed the trial court’s denial of the motion to suppress.
It is highly likely that this opinion will be appealed further. It is also important to note that the opinion relies entirely on federal law as the defendant in this case did not advance the argument that the Pennsylvania Constitution provides greater protections against stops based on anonymous tips than the United States Constitution. Whether such arguments will work in the future remains an open question. Finally, the tip in this case was extremely specific down to the make and model of the car, the defendant’s clothing, and the license plate of the vehicle. Nonetheless, this case substantially expands the power of the police to make stops based on anonymous radio calls. Such a power is extremely problematic because of the ease with which any citizen may mask his or her identity and call in an anonymous and false complaint against someone else to harass them. Normally, police are required to show that information was at least relatively trustworthy prior to acting on it. This opinion eliminates that requirement.
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