Informants Must Be Reliable To Be Used By Police

Much of police contact with the public is initiated by 911 calls. Dispatch will receive a complaint from the public; dispatch will relay the nature of the complaint to police; and police will respond. Police are looking for criminal activity, based on what the 911 caller told dispatch. Thus, police will normally make contact with persons suspected of being the subject of the 911 call–and oftentimes, others. Police may make a traffic stop if the complaint involved a suspected DUI or the like; or police may stop a person on his or her property or in a public place. This contact with police leads to the arrest of many people–not necessarily for the reason stated in the 911 call, but for unrelated reasons that happen because of police contact. But what if the officer had no legal basis to stop the person in the first place?

Given the potential dangers to civil liberty caused by stopping and arresting people on the word of 911 callers alone, the Montana Supreme Court has established reliability requirements that must exist before a call to police can be used to make a stop. As the Court stated:

The first factor is whether the citizen informant identifies himself to law enforcement and thus exposes himself to criminal and civil liability if the report is false. Under this factor, a tip may be considered more reliable if the informant provides his or her name to law enforcement authorities or delivers the information to the officer in person. The second factor is whether the report is based on the personal observations of the informant…The third factor is whether the officer’s own observations corroborated the informant’s information. Villegas-Varela, 887 P.2d at 811. Corroboration of the tip occurs when the officer either observes illegal activity or finds the person, the vehicle, and the vehicle’s location substantially as described by the informant.

State v. Pratt, 286 Mont. 156, 165, 951 P.2d 37, 42-43 (1997) (citations omitted).

The requirements are even greater when police use a confidential informant. See State v. Reesman, 301 Mont. 408, 10 P.3d 83 (2000). Where the reliability factors have not been satisfied, the police have no lawful basis to stop a person based on that information.

But just because a 911 caller has met the Pratt factors does not automatically mean that the Court must find the information given to dispatch reliable–such that police may rely on the 911 call. For example, this author succeeded on a Motion to Suppress and Dismiss in City of Kalispell v. Darryl Padgett, TK-14-3225. In Padgett, I filed these motions on the basis that the police officer lacked particularized suspicion to stop the defendant because the 911 caller was 1) not reliable under the Pratt test, and 2) even assuming the Pratt factors were satisfied, the 911 caller did not provide sufficient facts to give the police officer particularized suspicion that the defendant had committed a crime.

Particularly in Padgett, the police officer relied entirely on the 911 caller to make the stop of a suspected DUI. The police officer did not make any independent observations that the defendant had committed any criminal acts, not even a traffic violation. Thus, the only way the officer would have lawfully stopped the defendant was if the caller 1) satisfied the Pratt test and 2) gave particular facts that warranted a traffic stop on the defendant.

The Court held a hearing on the defendant’s motions. The Court heard testimony from the police officer who made the stop and heard the 911 recording. The interesting part of the 911 call is that the caller appeared intoxicated, stumbled on his words, could not provide answers to simple questions by dispatch, etc. So, while the 911 caller stated his name and gave facts of personal observation, and even though the officer found the same vehicle generally described by the 911 caller, the Court found that under the totality of the circumstances the City did not meet its burden of proving that the 911 call was reliable or stated particularized suspicion of criminal activity. The result: the Court dismissed the case and suppressed the evidence discovered by the officer at the stop.

This is one example of how knowledge of the law and close attention to factual details can make the difference between getting the case dismissed versus being convicted of a crime.

If you are a criminal defense attorney and need help handling your cases, Tim Baldwin can help. Tim has been practicing criminal law for 11 years, has tried nearly 60 criminal case jury trials, has handled thousands of criminal cases, and has helped many people defend themselves in criminal actions against them. Contact Tim here for help.

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