The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today held that a state trooper properly relied on the allegation of an anonymous caller to stop a motorist suspected of an act of road rage and search his vehicle. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Manha.
On July 9, 2012, a woman called 911 to report that a man driving next to her on Route 93 in Boston had pointed a gun at her. The woman, who did not identify herself, provided a description of the man’s car (including the make, model, and license plate number) and its location. A trooper found the car and pulled it over. The defendant was driving and was removed at gunpoint by three troopers who arrived at the scene. A patfrisk of the defendant revealed he did not have any weapons on his person, but the troopers found a pellet gun in the passenger compartment during a subsequent search. After being charged with assault with a dangerous weapon in the Boston Municipal Court, the defendant filed a motion to suppress, arguing the troopers lacked constitutional authority to stop and patfrisk him and search his vehicle. A judge denied his motion to suppress and he was convicted. On appeal, the Supreme Judicial Court upheld the denial of the defendant’s motion to suppress and affirmed his conviction.
This case presented the always-thorny question of when a cop may stop a motorist based on an anonymous 911 call. Anonymous callers must adequately identify the vehicle that is the subject of the stop and the prosecutor must establish the information provided by the caller was reliable. In this case, there was clearly enough identifying information about the defendant’s car. The issue, then, was whether the caller’s information bore an indicia of reliability. Massachusetts applies the two-pronged Aguilar-Spinelli test, which considers: (1) the caller’s basis of knowledge for the information; and (2) the veracity of the source of the information. Here, the basis of knowledge prong was easily satisfied, as the caller was an eyewitness to the conduct she was reporting to the police. The Commonwealth’s burden of establishing the truthfulness of the caller’s report was more difficult. Some common considerations (such as whether the person had provided truthful information in the past) do not apply to a situation where an anonymous caller is reporting something she is witnessing on a busy Boston highway. However, courts consider other factors in determining whether it is likely a caller is telling the truth. In this case, the caller stayed on the line to the 911 dispatcher as the information was being transmitted to the trooper who ultimately stopped the defendant’s car. In cases where the anonymous caller is willing to stay on the line for a lengthy period of time, it is likely she would also be willing to be identified. Callers who are willing to be identified are less likely to lie. Further, the trooper here was able to independently corroborate several of the details shared by the caller, including a description of the defendant, his car, and his direction of travel.
Finally, the Court pointed out that in a situation where the alleged crime is serious (such as pointing a gun at a fellow motorist on a highway), the cops have a responsibility to investigate. Accordingly, it was proper in this case for the troopers to stop the defendant, pull him out of the car, and search for the weapon used in the alleged crime.