Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Details & Emergency Justify Terry Stop Based on Anonymous Tip

US v. Elston: Police in Roanoke, VA, received a 911 call from a woman reporting that a man named "Jimmy" (Elston) had just left her home in his truck and was intoxicated. In addition, he had a handgun with ammunition and threatened to "let[] them off in somebody." The caller provided a detailed description of both Elston and his truck. The woman identified herself, but asked the 911 operator not to pass along her name to police and the operator complied (although the caller is identified in the opinion). Officers located Elston and stopped the truck. After Elston was removed from his truck and handcuffed on the ground, an officer saw a pistol in the truck. Elston was arrested for being a felon in possession of a firearm. He filed a motion to suppress the gun, on the ground that the 911 call was an anonymous tip that was not sufficiently corroborated to support a Terry stop. In the alternative, he argued that what happened wasn't really a Terry stop, but rather a full-fledged arrest, which the officers lacked probable cause to initiate. The district court denied the motion and Elston entered a conditional plea.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's rejection of Elston's suppression arguments. First, the court, assuming without deciding that the 911 call was "anonymous," held that the information provided by the caller was sufficiently detailed to support reasonable suspicion, as she "provided a wealth of detail about Elston's appearance, vehicle, weapon, behavior, and state of mind." In addition, the report that Elston was armed and might use his weapon added an element of emergency to the situation not found in prior anonymous tip cases. Second, the court held that the police officers actions in getting Elston out of his truck and handcuffed on the ground did not constitute an arrest and that the encounter was a Terry stop supported by reasonable suspicion. Finally, the court upheld the discovery of the gun in the truck as incident to a protective sweep of the vehicle.

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