Criminal Lawyer Update: Corroborating Informant Tips

by | Jul 11, 2008

There’s a new case regarding informant tips and corroboration from the Superior Court of Pennsylvania, in Commonwealth v. Brown, 2008 Pa. Super. 138 (Pa. Super. 2008).

The facts of this case are relatively straight forward. A “confidential” informant calls 911 and says “Tom” will be at an intersection, which is known as being busy, at a particular two-hour time window to distribute drugs. Police go to the location during that window of time to make observations. The police see Tom get out of a car empty handed, and return to the car with a brown paper bag and drive away. They then stop Tom in his car and find a bottle of pills in the front seat, and, after obtaining a warrant, they found more pills and a gun in the trunk of the car, and a tally book commonly used in drug dealing in the glove compartment. We’ll now call Tom the defendant.

The defendant then moves to suppress the evidence seized as the result of the police stopping him. The Commonwealth puts on its case at the suppression hearing, and introduces no evidence that the “confidential” informant is reliable. The police officer just testifies that he used the informant before. Therefore, according to the court, the tip from the confidential informant is about as reliable as an anonymous tip or a tip from an anonymous informant or at most a tip from a named citizen – which all have a low degree of reliability. Then, there must be corroboration, that is, independent information obtained by the police to provide reasonable suspicion to make a stop.

The court holds that there is insufficient corroboration in this case to create reasonable suspicion. Indeed, the informant says that the defendant will be at an intersection during a window of time to distribute drugs. All the police officers see him do is stop his car, get out, and return with a paper bag, which is not in and of itself illegal and doesn’t corroborate the informant’s tip. Therefore, the court holds that the police did not have reasonable suspicion to stop the defendant, which led to the search of his car and seizure of contraband.

There’s no indication that the Commonwealth has sought review in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court yet.

If you enjoyed this piece, check out this article on overturning convictions.

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