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Facebook Tip Treated as ‘Anonymous’

A tip that came from a Facebook account attached to a particular name will be treated as an anonymous tip by the Dickenson County Court and because officers were able to verify information in the tip such as the time frame for and route of travel of the target vehicle, the officers’ stop was constitutional and the court denies suppression of drugs found in the vehicle.

A seizure of the person and goods will be sustained in Virginia if the totality of the circumstances, such as police “be on the lookout for” memoranda, locality, racial identity, time, proximity and suspicious conduct, show a basis for a reasonable, articulable suspicion that some crime is or was afoot.

If an officer is to act on a tip, two conditions must be met. The officer must have some reason to believe the tipster is personally reliable as a general matter, and that the tipster is speaking from good information in this case.

However, tips from an anonymous tipster are judged by a different standard. Information from an unknown informant must contain more than easily obtained facts that could be known by even the casual observer. An anonymous tipster’s accurate description of a subject’s readily available location and appearance is not enough to establish that the tipster had knowledge of the subject’s criminal activity. Although the subject’s profile, standing alone, is not sufficient, it may, in conjunction with other evidence, justify an investigatory stop.

Here, the information related to the sheriff’s office originated through a Facebook message from what appeared to be the account of Brandy Mullins. This initial tip was furthered through a cell phone call to one claiming to be Brandy Mullins and subsequent text messages to the same cell phone number. At the time of receiving the tip, the sheriff’s office could not verify that they were in fact communicating with Brandy Mullins. Therefore, this analysis has to be conducted as if the tip was received from an anonymous source.

The information received included the make, model and color of the vehicle as well as an indication that the vehicle would display a Georgia registration. The tip also stated an African American male would be driving, a Hispanic male would be in the front passenger seat and a female would be in the rear passenger’s seat. Further, information indicated the vehicle would travel into Dickenson County by way of Rt. 72, Coeburn Rd., and gave an approximation of the time frame in which it would arrive.

In this case, much of the information included in the tip, such as the vehicle description and the seating arrangements, would be readily available to the casual observer. However, the tip also included information, such as the time frame and route of travel that would not be readily available to the casual observer. Therefore, when the officers involved were able to verify and confirm the caller’s ability to predict future events of the target vehicle, it became reasonable to conclude that the caller had reliable information about the defendant’s illegal activities and this basis of knowledge provided the anonymous caller with sufficient indicators of reliability to justify the investigatory stop.

Officers were able to verify sufficient facts included with the tip to justify an investigatory stop of the target vehicle. The stop was constitutional and the motion to suppress is denied.

Commonwealth v. Saunders (Vanover) Feb. 3, 2014; Dickenson County Cir.Ct.; Josh Newberry , Comm. Att’y; Brent Fleming, Jeremy O’Quinn for defendants. VLW 014-8-023, 6 pp.

VLW 014-8-023

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