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Reasonable Suspicion – Stop – “911 Hang-Up Call”

State v. Terry E. Nelson, 2012AP1418-CR, District 3, 10/23/12

court of appeals decision (1-judge, ineligible for publication); case activity

Reasonable suspicion supported stop of vehicle pulling out of driveway of house from which, shortly before, someone had called 911 but then hung up. United States v. Cohen, 481 F.3d 896 (6th Cir. 2007) (“the virtually complete lack of information conveyed by the silent 911 hang-up call and the total absence of corroborating evidence indicating that criminal activity was afoot requires us to give the 911 hang-up call little weight in evaluating the totality of the circumstances”), distinguished:

¶8        The circumstances here differ from Cohen.  First, the dispatcher in this case followed up and attempted to establish contact with the 911 hang-up call residence.  Glaze responded to the scene only after the dispatcher could not re-establish contact.  Further, when Glaze arrived at the residence, approximately ninety seconds after he was dispatched, he observed a vehicle pulling out of the residence’s driveway.  He did not stop Nelson’s vehicle merely because it was near the area.  Based on the 911 hang-up call, the inability of dispatch to make contact with anyone at the residence, and Glaze’s near immediate arrival and observation of Nelson’s vehicle’s departure, Glaze had reasonable suspicion to believe criminal activity was afoot.

As this case illustrates, deriving principles about police response to 911 hang-up calls is difficult, except perhaps at a fairly high level of generality, e.g., Cohen , 481 F.3d at 899: “that the 911 hang-up call, standing alone without follow-up calls by a dispatcher or other information, is most analogous to an anonymous tip.” That court’s embellishment is well-worth repeating, at 900:

Citizens call 911 for many different reasons. A citizen may call 911 in order to report an emergency, be it criminal activity, a fire, or a medical emergency, but someone may also call 911 because he or she misdialed another number, accidentally activated a speed dial feature, or wished to pull a prank on the authorities. Thus, without any information from the caller, the silent 911 hang-up call was the equivalent of an anonymous 911 report that there might be an emergency, which might or might not include criminal activity, at or near the address from which the call was made. In that sense, the silent 911 hang-up call could be said to have suggested the possibility of, among other things, a limited `assertion of illegality,’ but, absent any observed suspicious activity or other corroboration that criminal activity was afoot, Officer Pender had no way of determining whether the silent 911 hang-up call was reliable in even that limited possible assertion.

In brief, a 911 hang-up call requires sufficient corroboration to allow police action, same as an anonymous tip, Florida v. J.L., 529 U.S. 266, 270 (2000) (anonymous tip requires corroboration of “sufficient indicia of reliability to provide reasonable suspicion to make the investigatory stop”). The nature and extent of corroboration is quite fact-sensitive, of course, but the present decision is consistent with this principle – the dispatcher made an unsuccessful attempt to establish contact, the officer was on scene within a mere 90 secs, ¶2 and, perhaps even more significantly, the residence from which the call was made “is the only house on Lake Avenue,” id.

What about 911 hang-up calls and police entry of the house? Take a look at, unfavorable as it is from the defense perspective, Hanson v. Dane County, 608 F. 3d 335, 337-38 (7th Cir 2010) (“Like the district judge, we think that a 911 call provides probable cause for entry, if a call back goes unanswered. The 911 line is supposed to be used for emergencies only. A lack of an answer on the return of an incomplete emergency call implies that the caller is unable to pick up the phone—because of injury, illness (a heart attack, for example), or a threat of violence.”)

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