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Release: Dec 13, 1999

Law prof: High court search and seizure case likely to spark national debate

IOWA CITY – In the amicus curiae brief to the United States Supreme Court, a juvenile -- who was stopped and frisked by Florida police based on an anonymous tip -- is known simply as "J.L." His appeal, says a University of Iowa law professor who is filing the friend of the Court brief, is likely to cause a national debate about Fourth Amendment rights and the need for more police authority to curb firearm violence.

The brief is being prepared on behalf of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, although other nationally prominent advocacy groups may well join the effort. The Court has yet to set a date for the case, but it could do so as early as January, says criminal law Professor James Tomkovicz, who laid out the details of the case:

One sunlit day in 1997 an anonymous person contacted the police and reported that several young black males were standing at a particular bus stop. The tipster specified that the young man wearing a "plaid-looking shirt" was carrying a gun. That young man turned out to be J.L.

Two officers arrived at the location. One approached and frisked J.L., who indeed had a gun. The second officer frisked the juvenile's companions even though the tipster made no accusations of either of them. J.L. was charged in a juvenile delinquency petition with unlawful carrying of a concealed firearm and possession of a firearm by a person under 18. A trial judge suppressed the gun as evidence, but the state of Florida won an appeals court decision that overturned that ruling. J.L.'s Florida Supreme Court appeal reversed that decision in 1998, which has led to the recent U.S. Supreme Court petition filed by the state of Florida.

J.L.'s rights were infringed, Tomkovicz says, because there was no good reason to credit the assertions of the anonymous tipster and because neither of the officers had noticed any suspicious conduct by J.L. or his companions.

"The central issues are 'Does a presumptively unreliable, anonymous tip that is not significantly corroborated by authorities justify a stop and frisk of an otherwise innocent person?' 'Is a stop and frisk in such circumstances a reasonable search and seizure?' A vague and inconclusive tip is not alone a sufficient basis for intruding on citizens," says Tomkovicz.

"If the Court rules in favor of such actions, it would be a significant expansion of police powers, powers that threaten every person's constitutional freedoms," Tomkovicz says.

If the officers had received a more detailed tip and had confirmed some of those details, the stop could have been lawful, Tomkovicz says. The case is likely to attract attention because of the public's sensitivity to recent gun violence, which has increased because of a rash of school shootings across the country. The public's perception that gun-related violence is escalating is misconceived, Tomkovicz says.

A preliminary 1999 Federal Bureau of Investigation crime statistics report shows crime decreased 10 percent during the first six months of the year when compared to the same period in 1998. And, during the first quarter of 1999, there was an 11 percent decrease of serious crimes compared to the same period in 1998.

"All of the studies over the past five years consistently show that while firearm violence is still a problem, there is no escalating epidemic of firearm violence. Instead, there has been a consistently declining trend. Lawful searches and seizures by law enforcement are necessary to control crime, including violence with firearms. But we shouldn't alter the constitutional balance on false arguments and misconceptions about the nature of the problem and courts' roles in addressing that problem," Tomkovicz says.

Tomkovicz says the J.L. case grows out of the landmark decision in Terry v. Ohio, in which the U.S. Supreme Court in 1963 said police may stop and frisk citizens but they need more than a hunch before doing so. The Court said officers need reasonable suspicion of crime and danger.

"This case makes clear that there are costs to having Fourth Amendment rights. We hope the Supreme Court acknowledges that those rights are well worth the price we pay for them.

"If the Court relies on the dangers posed by firearms to rule in favor of the state of Florida in this case, then it won't be easy to deny officers similar powers in cases involving other sorts of dangers," Tomkovicz says.