Florida v. J.L.

U.S. Supreme Court case Florida v. J.L., No. 98-1993 decided on March 28, 2000. Oral Arguments on February 29, 2000.

U.S. Supreme Court issues rare unanimous opinion in a criminal case

The Miami-Dade Public Defender's Office in March 2000 won a significant U.S. Supreme Court case that upheld our Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures. The unanimous ruling is unusual in criminal cases because of the divergent legal and political philosophies of the Supreme Court justices. However, the issues were so clear in Florida v. J.L. that they completely agreed that police may not stop and frisk someone based merely on an anonymous tip that he is carrying a gun. 

Case Summary*

On October 13, 1995, an anonymous caller reported to Miami-Dade police that a young black male standing at a particular bus stop and wearing a plaid shirt was carrying a gun. The police went to the scene and saw a group of young black males standing at a bus stop as described by the anonymous tipster. J.L. was among the group of males and was wearing a plaid shirt. The police could not tell whether or not J.L. was carrying a gun. One officer approached J.L., asked him to put his hands up, and “frisked” him. The officer found a gun in J.L.’s pocket. The officer took the gun and arrested J.L.

The police charged J.L. with unlawfully carrying a concealed firearm and possession of a firearm by a minor. Before J.L.’s trial,  J.L.’s attorney, an assistant public defender (APD) with the Law Offices of  Public Defender Bennett H. Brummer, asked the judge not to allow the gun to be used in the trial as evidence because the police acquired the gun through an illegal search and seizure. The APD contended that the police did not have the “reasonable suspicion” necessary to conduct a lawful search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and Article I, Section 12 of the Florida Constitution. The APD specifically contended that the anonymous tip was unreliable because the police had no other information to verify that J.L. was carrying a concealed gun. The judge ruled that the police did not have enough information to supply them with a reasonable suspicion that J.L. was carrying a gun. The judge suppressed the gun because the police committed an unreasonable search and seizure. The judge based his ruling on the similar case of Butts v. State, 644 So. 2d 605 (Fla. 1st DCA 1994).

The prosecuting attorney appealed the trial judge’s ruling to the Third District Court of Appeal. The prosecutor argued that once the police arrived at the scene and were able to see that the anonymous tipster accurately described the persons and location, the officers had a reasonable suspicion that J.L. was committing a crime and, thus, were justified in conducting the “stop-and-frisk.” J.L.’s attorney argued that the trial judge correctly suppressed the gun because the anonymous tip was not sufficiently verified by the police officers’ observations. The appellate court reversed the ruling of the trial court and held that the gun should be allowed into evidence at J.L.’s trial. The appeals court stated that upon the police officers’ arrival at the scene, they were able to verify that the anonymous tip was reliable and accurate. The appellate court also stated that although the police could not verify that J.L. was carrying a concealed gun prior to searching him, the stop-and-frisk was reasonable because the officers had to ensure their own safety.  J.L. appealed to the Supreme Court of Florida because the decision of the appellate court was in conflict with the decision in Butts.

In 1998, the Supreme Court of Florida held the search invalid under the Fourth Amendment. The court found that anonymous tips are generally less reliable than tips from known informants and can form the basis for reasonable suspicion only if accompanied by specific indicia of reliability.

The State of Florida appealed the Florida Supreme Court ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed with the Florida Supreme Court and held unanimously that an anonymous tip that a person is carrying a gun is not enough to justify a police officer’s stop and frisk of that person without further reliable information that the tip is credible. 

J.L. never went to trial on the criminal charges.

You can review the opinion of the Third District Court of Appeal of Florida. 

Also available are the Petitioner's Brief filed by the Law Offices of Public Defender Bennett H. Brummer and the Respondent Brief filed by Robert A. Butterworth, Attorney General of Florida, when the case was argued before the Florida Supreme Court.

You also can listen to audio or video files of the oral arguments before the Florida Supreme Court.

To read the full text of the U.S. Supreme Court decision,  click here. You also can view the Petitioner's Brief filed by the Florida Attorney General, Respondent's Brief filed by the Public Defender's Office, the Petitioner's Reply Brief filed by the Florida Attorney General, and a Brief for the United States as Amicus Curiae Supporting Petitioner filed by the U.S. Department of Justice, all from when the case was argued before the nation's highest court.

To view the U.S. Supreme Court briefs, you must have the Adobe Acrobat Reader loaded on your computer.

To read the New York Times article on the Supreme Court's decision in Florida v. J.L., click here.

To read the American Bar Association Supreme Court Review on Florida v. J.L. that was published in the New York Times, click here.

*This case summary includes information from the Supreme Court of Florida Cybercourt web site, an educational program designed for high school students.

  

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Law Offices of the Public Defender
Eleventh Judicial Circuit of Florida

 

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