What evidence do police need for a search?

Court hears two cases on people's right to be free from unreasonable searches.

Police in Miami receive an anonymous tip identifying three teenagers standing at a bus stop outside a pawn shop. The tipster says that one boy, wearing a plaid shirt, is carrying a concealed gun.

Police officers arrive at the bus stop within six minutes, see the three teens, including one in a plaid shirt, and frisk all three.

The police discover a gun in the pocket of the plaid-shirted teen. He is 16, far too young to legally possess a gun in Florida, let alone a concealed handgun. But the gun charges against him are eventually thrown out by state court judges.

Today, the US Supreme Court is considering whether the police acted properly by safeguarding the community from a teenager carrying a concealed pistol, or whether those same police officers violated the minor's Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches.

It is an issue that is taking on a heightened sense of urgency in communities across the nation concerned about violent juvenile crime, including deadly assaults like the attack at Columbine High School in Colorado last year.

It also comes at a time of increasing public distrust of the police and their tactics, as evidenced by the massive corruption uncovered within the Los Angeles Police Department and the recent trial of four New York policemen on charges that they gunned down an unarmed man they thought was carrying a gun.

At the heart of the Miami case is the legal question of whether an anonymous tip is reliable enough to justify police frisking a suspect.

The law is clear that a frisk is justified when police obtain information that supports the essence of the tip and independently bolsters a reasonable suspicion that a crime is under way.

But what is not clear is whether a frisk is justified if police can only verify innocent details - such as a plaid shirt - contained in the tip.

Defining reasonable suspicion

Such innocent details do not in any way confirm ongoing illegal activity. But some legal analysts say verifying innocent details can help support the overall veracity of the tip, and that can create enough reasonable suspicion to justify a frisk.

Friend-of-court briefs have been filed in the case by various police and crime-victims organizations and the attorneys general of 33 states urging the court to overturn the Florida judges and allow such searches.

On the other side, a coalition of civil libertarians, civil rights advocates, and the National Rifle Association is urging the court to uphold the Florida rulings.

"We have a case here that is going to test the court's willingness to stand up for the Fourth Amendment," says James Tomkovicz, a law professor and Fourth Amendment expert at the University of Iowa College of Law in Iowa City.

How the high court resolves the Florida case will provide police officers with much-needed guidance in how to respond to anonymous tips.

In some cases, the tip may prove false, and a hasty frisk would subject an innocent person to unwarranted embarrassment, fear, and possible injury.

In other cases, police may have only moments to act to prevent a violent crime. "Officers who receive an anonymous tip that an individual of a particular description is carrying a bomb outside of a courthouse, or is concealing an automatic pistol outside a school, cannot ignore the potential threat of violence when, upon arriving at the location, they find the described individual at the scene," says the US solicitor general's brief in the case.

Both the Florida Attorney General's Office and the US Justice Department are urging the justices to take what they say is a common-sense approach to the issue. Law-enforcement officials on the scene must have the flexibility to assess, on a case-by-case basis, the potential for the immediate and lethal use of a weapon by a suspect, they say.

Not everyone agrees with this approach. "It isn't really an all-or-nothing choice that if you don't act now on the tip someone is going to die," says Mr. Tomkovicz. In the majority of cases, police retain the ability to observe suspects and conduct an independent investigation before moving in.

"The fact that a tip mentions a gun simply does not demonstrate that the tip is reliable," writes Harvey Sepler, an assistant public defender in Miami who is arguing the boy's case. He says police must investigate further to build a reasonable suspicion of a crime.

"Police across the country receive anonymous information every day. When those tips merit further investigation, police have little trouble determining whether or not the tip justifies a stop or arrest," Mr. Sepler says. "They may not, however, decide to start frisking people whenever the word 'gun' is used."

To squeeze or not to squeeze

Also today, in a second Fourth Amendment case, the Supreme Court is considering whether a federal agent violates the constitutional privacy rights of bus passengers when he squeezes soft-sided luggage in the overhead compartment in a random attempt to detect illicit drugs.

Steven Bond argues that his drug-smuggling conviction should be overturned because the agent in his case had no reasonable suspicion, probable cause, or consent to squeeze his bag.

The agent working at a checkpoint on the Texas-Mexico border detected a "brick-like object" in Mr. Bond's suitcase. He obtained permission from Bond to search inside the bag, where he found a 1.3-pound block of the illegal drug methamphetamine.

Lawyers for the government argue that once Bond placed his bag in the common overhead compartment he no longer retained a reasonable expectation of privacy. As a result, the agent did not need a warrant to squeeze Bond's luggage while searching for contraband, they say.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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