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Release: March 29, 2000

Tomkovicz: Supreme Court made correct ruling on search, seizure case

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Tuesday's 9-0 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court limiting police officers' authority to conduct searches and seizures does not change the Fourth Amendment law which already bans such police actions, says James Tomkovicz, University of Iowa College of Law criminal law professor. Instead, he says, the court's ruling in The State of Florida v. J.L. affirms previous court rulings that say that in the absence of significant corroboration, searches and seizures based on anonymous tips are unconstitutional.

"The decision does not change the law. An anonymous tip, standing alone with minimal corroboration, is not a reliable enough basis for stopping and frisking a citizen. Police are no more restricted after "J.L." than they were under the controlling precedents of Terry v. Ohio and Alabama v. White," says Tomkovicz.

The court said Miami police unlawfully stopped and frisked a Miami youth in 1998 for illegal possession of a firearm by a minor when they acted on a caller's anonymous tip about a youth carrying a concealed weapon.

Tomkovicz was enlisted by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers to write an amicus curiae or friend of the court brief in support of the respondent, known in court documents only by his initials. Six other organizations also joined the brief.

"Privacy and liberty are not cost-free. The Supreme Court's ruling in J.L. informs police officers that there are limits to their authority and that the end -- taking a gun out of the hands of a youth -- does not justify the means -- unjustified invasion of privacy and dignity,'' Tomkovicz says.

Tomkovicz says he believes the court's surprising unanimity reflects a view that the government's claim was extreme, and that a contrary result would have done substantial damage to the rights of innumerable innocent citizens.

"The question is whether an anonymous tip…is, without more, sufficient to justify a police officer's stop and frisk of that person. We hold that it is not," wrote Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg for the court.

Attorneys for Florida contended that police officers' safety would be threatened if they were not given the authority to conduct such searches, according to the reports filed by the Associated Press. Police might get more leeway "where the reasonable expectation of Fourth Amendment privacy is diminished, such as airports and schools," wrote Justice Ginsburg.

"Allowing such searches 'would enable any person seeking to harass another to set in motion

an intrusive, embarrassing police search of the targeted person simply by placing an anonymous call,' " the court said.

Tomkovicz wrote a friend of the court brief on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Iowa Civil Liberties Union in Knowles v. Iowa. In that 1998 case, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Newton, Iowa, police unconstitutionally searched Patrick Knowles' car after he was pulled over on a routine traffic stop.

For more information on the court's ruling and the case's legal issues, contact James Tomkovicz at (319) 335-9100.