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Reasonable Suspicion – Stop – Basis – anonymous tip

State v. Roosevelt Williams, 2001 WI 21, on remand, 529 U.S. 1050 (2000), previous historyState v. Roosevelt Williams, 225 Wis. 2d 159, 591 N.W.2d 823 (1999); State v. Williams, 214 Wis. 2d 412, 570 N.W.2d 892 (Ct. App. 1997)
For Williams: Melinda Swartz, SPD, Milwaukee Appellate.

Issue: “(W)hether an anonymous tip containing a contemporaneous report of drug trafficking, combined with independent observations and corroboration of details from the tip justified the investigatory stop of Williams,” ¶2.

Holding: Plurality opinion (3 votes):

¶47 In Florida v. J.L., the Supreme Court held that ‘an anonymous tip that a person carrying a gun is, without more, [in]sufficient to justify a police officer’s stop and frisk of that person.’ 120 S. Ct. at 1377 (emphasis added). Here, there is plainly so much more than a “bare-boned” tip. Id. at 1380. The information upon which the police proceeded was substantial in both quality and quantity. The anonymous tip was supported by a wide array of indicia of reliability contemporaneous eyewitness account accompanied by details promptly verified by the police. A reliable tip, such as this one, provided information of substantial quality. Added to that was information of not insignificant quantity a vehicle parked in an alleyway in broad daylight with no plates, containing two persons, one of whom was reaching behind the passenger’s seat upon the police’s arrival. Accordingly, consideration of the totality of circumstances compels the conclusion that the officers’ acted reasonably in deciding to detain Williams. We have here the necessary “cumulative detail, along with reasonable inferences and deductions which a reasonable officer could glean therefrom, [that] is sufficient to supply the reasonable suspicion that crime is afoot and to justify the stop.” Richardson, 156 Wis. 2d at 142. We therefore conclude that the State has met its burden of showing that the investigatory stop of Williams was justified that there was reasonable suspicion.

The court splits 4-3: a 3-vote plurality, single-vote concurrence (decisive because it represents the 4th vote), and 3 dissents. There is some, but not much, daylight between the plurality and concurrence (Justice Prosser). Start with the given principle: an anonymous tip alone can’t support reasonable suspicion. But this principle breaks down to two subsidiary issues: whether the call was 1) truly anonymous and 2) sufficiently corroborated. Justice Prosser views the informant’s identity as known rather than anonymous, and the informant therefore as presumptively reliable, ¶¶64-90. Justice Prosser’s approach has important ramifications, because he in effect takes judicial notice that any 911 call by its very nature is non-anonymous. The majority seemingly rejects that approach, ¶ 38 n. 14: “while we wish we could adopt the concurrence’s position that this is not an anonymous informant case, there is nothing in the record, and nothing of which we can take judicial notice, which would establish that a sophisticated 9-1-1 system was operating at the time the call came in to the Milwaukee Emergency Operator.” This suggests in the first instance that if a proper factual record were made a 911 call would be treated as non-anonymous even if the caller refused to provide his or her name. Second, despite this disavowal, the plurality indeed seemed to view the call as not quite anonymous:

¶35 Although the caller said that she did not “want to get involved,” by providing self-identifying information, she risked that her identity would be discovered. Consequently, the 9-1-1 caller put her anonymity at risk, contrary to Williams’ contention. We agree with the concurrence in Florida v. J.L. that if “an informant places his [or her] anonymity at risk, a court can consider this factor in weighing the reliability of the tip.” Florida v. J.L., 120 S. Ct. at 1381 (Kennedy, J., concurring).[10] Risking one’s identification intimates that, more likely than not, the informant is a genuinely concerned citizen as opposed to a fallacious prankster.[11]

[10]The dissent seems to suggest at ¶115 that a tipster is reliable only if he or she knowingly or intentionally risks his or her anonymity. There is no authority for such a contention. Where a tipster has reliable and accurate information about ongoing criminal activity he or she observes in a neighborhood, we want to encourage contemporaneous reporting of that activity. Such a person need not intentionally or knowingly put himself or herself at risk by personal identification. We dare not speculate what a caller risks when he or she reports criminal activity observed, but it may be much more than anonymity. Moreover, it would be difficult, if not impossible, in many instances, for a court to determine whether a tipster has knowingly or intentionally put at risk his or her anonymity by calling a police station and giving identifying information, but not specifically identifying himself or herself.
[11] All indications here point to the conclusion that the 9-1-1 caller was not a prankster. Originally, she had identified the vehicle as a van, but then, after leaving the phone to get a better description, she describes the vehicle as a Ford Bronco. Actually, it was a Chevy Blazer, although, as the officers testified, the two vehicles are similar in appearance. That the caller misidentified the vehicle as well as left the phone to obtain a more detailed description indicates that clearly the call was not likely rehearsed.

In the end, then, plurality and concurrence differ more in slight degree than kind: plurality — on the particular facts, the caller is deemed a “citizen informant” and, therefore, presumptively reliable (which thus shifts the court’s concern from “personal” to “observational” reliability, ¶36); concurrence — as a matter of law a 911 caller is necessarily deemed a “citizen informant.” Thus, these two opinions ultimately reach the same conclusion, albeit for slightly different reasons. The plurality, it bears repeating, leaves open the distinct possibility that on the proper record a 911 call will be treated as non-anonymous even where the caller refuses to provide an identity. But it also remains possible that a given 911 caller’s refusal to give what the Williams court describes as “self-identifying” information might be meaningfully distinguished. And the dissent’s point — that the very notion of a “relaxed test of reliability” stemming from a “citizen informant” tip rests on outmoded case law, ¶111 — should be kept in mind as well.


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