Fourth Amendment Nuance Worth Consideration

While conducting research for a motion to suppress evidence  as a violation of Terry v. Ohio,  I discovered some caselaw concerning what is termed  “the collective knowledge doctrine.”  Terry v. Ohio, of course, allows a police officer to conduct a limited  investigative detention when supported by reasonable suspicion. Terry will be discussed  in the coming Texas legislative session because it provides the Fourth Amendment muscle for a number of  proposed bills that parrot Arizona’s attempt to detain individuals to check their immigration status.

The “collective knowledge or imputed knowledge” doctrine refers to imputing knowledge of facts essential to a determination of reasonable suspicion or probable cause from one law enforcement source to the actual officer conducting the detention or arrest. The justification for the rule lies in the fact that “the arresting officer cannot always be aware of every aspect of an investigation; sometimes his authority to arrest a suspect is based on facts known only to his superiors or associates”.  United States v. Colon, 250 F.3d 130 (2nd Cir. 2001).

OK, that’s interesting. What do you do with that? Well, here’s the important and often overlooked point. When a civilian employee of a police department gets stuck in the chain of information, an officer conducting the detention cannot ordinarily rely upon “imputed knowledge” from the civilian employee. Only if the "civilian" is trained in making a "reasonable suspicion" determination can “reasonable suspicion” be imputed to a detaining officer from a non-law enforcement source. This of course can render reasonable suspicion or probable cause insufficient and invalidate a search or seizure under the Fourth Amendment. This nuance undoubtedly gets overlooked and detentions or arrests that involve non-law enforcement personnel in the chain of information pass muster when perhaps they should not.

For instance, in the Colon case  a presumably anonymous caller reported to a civilian 911 operator that a man in a bar had a gun. A police dispatcher received that information as did the officer ultimately making the investigative detention. What did not get transmitted was the fact that the caller gave additional information from which one could conclude that the “anonymous” caller was in fact identifiable. The Court found the detention invalid under Florida v. J.L., 529 U.S. 266,  120 S.Ct. 1375, 146 L.Ed. 2d 254 (2000) (anonymous tip concerning man with a gun without more insufficient to establish reasonable suspicion) because the information concerning the caller’s identity (known to the civilian 911 operator but not the police dispatcher nor the detaining officer) could not be imputed to the actual officer making the detention. Had everyone involved in the chain of information possessed police credentials, knowledge of the caller’s identity could have been imputed to the officer conducting the detention. It might be helpful in situations where "reasonable suspicion" depends on collective information to ask who is making the reasonable suspicion determination.

Under Terry, the police must make the determination. Likewise, imputed information essential to a reasonable suspicion determination must originate with a “police” source or evidence must exist that the civilian police employee received training in determining reasonable suspicion.  An untrained civilian source or a record that fails to show a properly trained civilian jeopardizes the legality of the detention.