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Citizen Informants and Traffic Stops

Posted Wednesday, March 17, 2021 by Andrew Charles Huff

Law enforcement official rely on “citizen informants” and the information they provide to catch criminals. But can police conduct a warrantless traffic stop based on an informants’ information? This was the issue before the Washington Court of Appeals recently when a drug user who was caught reported to police that she bought her drugs from the petitioner Mr. Morrell.

The informant was arrested on a warrant and officers discovered drugs on her person. This informant claimed she just purchased these drugs from Mr. Morrell and based on this information, police stopped Mr. Morrell’s vehicle near a gas station. Upon searching his car, police found additional drugs, scales and other paraphernalia. He appealed his conviction.

The issue here is whether the informant’s tip provided reasonable suspicion for an investigatory traffic stop, referred to as a Terry stop. The Court wrote that when using a criminal informant, law enforcement must be assured the quality of information outweighs the informant’s motive to lie. For a Terry stop to be permissible, the State must show that the officer had a “reasonable suspicion” that the detained person was, or was about to be, involved in a crime. In using information from an informant for this purpose, the State must show this information bears some “indicia of reliability.”

In this case, although the informant was known to officers, her credibility was found suspect in part because she was a criminal informant. Additionally, officers were not able to properly corroborate her claims prior to conducting a Terry stop of Mr. Morrell’s vehicle. Because the informant’s claims were not subject to corroboration nor inherently credible, the Court found the Terry stop of Mr. Morrell was not justified and the items found in the subsequent search were suppressed.

State v. Morrell, No. 37160-3, Division Three

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