WASHINGTON -- Police generally cannot stop and search someone for a gun based on an anonymous tip accurately describing only that person's location and clothing, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously today.
The justices said Miami police acted unlawfully in 1995 when they searched and arrested a juvenile, identified in court records as J.L., who was carrying a gun.
Police had received an anonymous tip that three black youths were standing in front of a pawn shop and that the one in a plaid shirt was carrying a concealed gun.
''The question is whether an anonymous tip ... is, without more, sufficient to justify a police officer's stop and frisk of that person,'' Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the court. ''We hold that it is not.''
Ginsburg added: ''Unlike a tip from a known informant whose reputation can be assessed and who can be held responsible if her allegations turn out to be fabricated, an anonymous tip alone seldom demonstrates the informant's basis of knowledge or veracity.''
Any resulting search violates that person's Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable police searches and seizures, the court said. The gun seized from J.L. therefore should not have been used as evidence against him, it said.
Today's decision upheld a Florida Supreme Court ruling that had thrown out J.L.'s conviction.
The nation's highest court 32 years ago ruled that police can stop and frisk someone without a court warrant if they reasonably believe the person has committed or is about to commit a crime. Today's decision does not affect that ruling.
It states, however, that an anonymous tip most often cannot be the basis of a reasonable belief of wrongdoing.
But Ginsburg said the court was stopping short of saying whether anonymous tips can spark lawful police searches when ''the danger alleged ... might be so great as to justify a search even without a showing of reliability.''
For example, she said, a report of a person carrying a bomb would not necessarily have to ''bear the indicia of reliability we demand for a report of a person carrying a firearm before police can constitutionally conduct a frisk.''
Police also might get more leeway ''where the reasonable expectation of Fourth Amendment privacy is diminished, such as airports and schools,'' Ginsburg said.
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