In a recent decision handed down by the Rhode Island Supreme Court, the Court ruled that a Rhode Island State Police Trooper lacked probable cause to arrest and search a defendant for drugs based on the information provided by a confidential informant. In the case, State v. Burgess, the Supreme Court analyzed the evidence presented by the State in support of their contention that probable cause existed at the time of the Defendant's arrest. Ultimately, the Court sided with the Defendant based on the fact that the informant was not previously known to the police, had not provided accurate information in the past, and the information he provided in this case was not verified by independent police investigation.
An Informant's Tip Does Not Always Provide Probable Cause for Police to Arrest and Search
The Rhode Island Supreme Court articulated the general rule regarding informant tips and probable cause. An informant's tip “like all other clues and evidence coming to a policeman on the scene, may vary greatly in their value and reliability.” Therefore, the proper standard to analyze the tip is in the totality of the circumstances in which an “informant's veracity, reliability, and basis of knowledge remain highly relevant.” Additionally, “corroboration of details of an informant's tip by independent police work can strengthen the argument for probable cause in a particular case.”
Important Factor # 1: Confidential Informant Reliability
Some important factors identified by the Supreme Court in the Burgess case include whether or not the confidential informant had previously provided information to the police. While this is not required to establish probable cause based on an informant's tip, it is an important fact that, when present, “increases the likelihood that the informant's information is reliable and truthful” with regard to this tip.
Important Factor # 2: Confidential Informant Basis of Knowledge
Another factor analyzed by the Court is the “type of detail provided by the confidential informant.” The United State Supreme Court in Florida v. J.L. stated that “an accurate description of a subject's readily observable location and appearance is of course reliable in this limited sense: It will help the police correctly identify the person whom the tipster means to accurse. Such a tip, however, does not show that the tipster has knowledge of concealed criminal activity. The reasonable suspicion here at issue requires that a tip be reliable in its assertion of illegality, not just in its tendency to identify a determinate person.”
The Tip in Burgess Lacked Sufficient Reliability to Establish Probable Cause to Arrest
In the case decided by the Rhode Island Supreme Court, the tipster was previously unknown to the police and had not provided information to them in the past. Moreover, the information provided by the tipster was of a nature the that U.S. Supreme Court found in Florida v. J.L.. It was merely an accurate description of the defendant's physical appearance, a close description of the defendant's vehicle, and a correct statement of the restaurant at which the defendant would be dining. This information failed to provide predictive detail from which the police could assess the informant's claim that he had knowledge of the defendant's criminal conduct.
Important Factor # 3: Corroboration by Independent Police Investigation
However, the failings of the informant's background and tip did not end the Court's analysis. The Court went on to analyze the extent of corroboration by independent police investigation. An informant's tip that alone does not furnish probable cause can be shored up by independent police investigation. In this case, the police investigation merely identified the defendant exiting the restaurant in question. The police did not even attempt to corroborate the informant's description of the vehicle.
No Probable Cause Based on Uncorroborated First Time Tipster
Ultimately, the Court found that there is no “case in which probable cause to arrest a suspect was found based on a tip from a first-time informant who has merely been detained on an outstanding warrant, where the tip is devoid of predictive detail and fails to indicate the informant's basis of knowledge of the alleged criminal activity, and police undertake no effort to corroborate or independently investigate such a bare-bones tip.”
For Full Text of the Burgess Opinion Follow the Link Below:
Congratulations to Angela Yingling from the Office of Public Defender who argued this case on appeal.
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