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When an Informant's Tip Gives Officers Probable Cause to Arrest Drug Traffickers

NCJ Number
FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin Volume: 72 Issue: 12 Dated: December 2003 Pages: 8-21
Edward M. Hendrie J.D.
Date Published
December 2003
14 pages
This article discusses the requirements and circumstances under which an informant’s information can provide probable cause for police officers to arrest.
A case study is provided that illustrates the complexities involved in using police informants to provide probable cause for an arrest. The case involves the arrest of a drug trafficking suspect who was identified by a police informant days before the arrest. In an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, the defendant argued that the information acted upon by the arresting police officers was heresay, and therefore the evidence obtained from such heresay should be inadmissible in court. The second argument made by the defendant was that even if the heresay could be considered, it was insufficient to establish probable cause, making his arrest unlawful. The Supreme Court ruled that the officers would have been derelict in their duties had they not acted on the informant’s tip. The Aquilar-Spinelli two-prong test for determining when informant information establishes probable cause is discussed. The first prong assesses the credibility of the informant, while the second prong assesses the informant’s basis of knowledge. The credibility and reliability of informants is discussed at length, including the fact that an informant can be considered credible when they have a strong motive to be truthful, even when prior information provided to police has been inaccurate. The author cites the case United States v. Carter to illustrate how an informant may be considered credible despite a lack of an established track record for reliability. The use of concerned citizen informants and anonymous tips to establish probable cause for police officers is also reviewed, with several court cases provided as illustration. Citizen informant information easily establishes probable cause to arrest with only the slightest corroboration, while anonymous tips require some exacting corroboration of the information. The key in these cases is that the concerned citizens’ identity is known to the police, whereas the identity of the anonymous tip giver is unknown. As such, in light of many court rulings on the lawfulness of arrests and admissibility of evidence, it has been well established that a tip by an informant, along with some degree of corroborating evidence, provides probable cause to arrest. Endnotes