State v. Howerton: Citizen 911 Call Supports Terry Stop

 

In State v. Howerton, the WA Court of Appeals held that a citizen informant’s 911 call was reliable enough to support a Terry stop. The citizen informant provided her name, address, and telephone number to the dispatch, included a statement that she had just witnessed the crime, objective facts that indicated criminal rather than legal activity, and an offer to speak with the police if they needed to contact her.

On September 29, 2013, at 2:00 a.m., Laura Parks called 911 from her cell phone to report that she just witnessed someone break into a van parked across the street from her house. She provided her name, address, and telephone number to the dispatcher. Parks described the suspect as a black male, average build, five feet seven inches tall, wearing a baggy black leather jacket and baggy pants. She stated he left the area on foot and was heading south on Second Avenue in Burien, Washington.

Police responded to the call and began searching the area for the subject. They contacted a man identified as Delante Howerton matching the description. Howerton was handcuffed. Police noticed a blade sticking out of Howerton’s sleeve. When searched Howerton for weapons, police officers found a foot-long bread knife and a screwdriver on Howerton’s person.

Ms. Parks confirmed that Howerton was the individual she saw break into the van earlier.

Howerton was charged with attempted Theft of a Motor Vehicle, Making or Possessing Vehicle Theft Tools, and Intimidating a Public Servant. The trial court later dismissed the charge of intimidating a public servant. Howerton moved to suppress evidence obtained as a result of the investigatory detention. Specifically, Howerton argued Hutchinson lacked reasonable articulable suspicion to detain him when Hutchinson’s only source of information was from a named but unknown telephone informant. After a CrR 3.5 and CrR 3.6 hearing, the trial court denied Howerton’s motion to suppress.

A jury convicted Howerton of misdemeanor second degree attempted taking of a motor vehicle without permission and making or having vehicle theft tools. He appealed.

The Court of Appeals upheld Howerton’s conviction and ruled his stop/arrest was lawful under Terry v. Ohio. They reasoned that an investigatory Terry stop is permissible ifthe investigating officer has a reasonable and articulable suspicion that the individual is involved in criminal activity. A reasonable suspicion is the substantial possibility that criminal conduct has occurred or is about to occur. A reasonable suspicion can arise from information that is less reliable than that required to establish probable cause.

The Court further reasoned that an informant’s tip can provide police with reasonable suspicion to justify an investigatory Terry stop if the tip possesses sufficient “‘indicia of reliability.'” Courts employ the totality of the circumstances test to determine whether an informant’s tip possessed sufficient indicia of reliability to support reasonable suspicion. When deciding whether this indicia of reliability exists, the courts will generally consider several factors, primarily “(1) whether the informant is reliable, (2) whether the information was obtained in a reliable fashion, and (3) whether the officers can corroborate any details of the informant’s tip.” Known citizen informants are presumptively reliable.

Here, the Court further reasoned that Parks’s 911 call demonstrated a sufficient factual basis to provide reasonable suspicion for the seizure:

Here, Parks unequivocally indicated to the 911 dispatcher that she was an eyewitness. When she called 911, she told the dispatcher, “I just saw a robbery.” She provided her full name, her address, and her telephone number. She indicated that she was willing to speak with police if they needed to contact her. She told the dispatcher the incident occurred “directly across the street” from her house and that it “just now happened.” She stated that an individual “broke into a car.” She said she actually saw him enter the car. She gave a detailed description of the suspect—black male, average build, short hair, five feet seven inches tall, wearing a baggy black leather jacket and baggy pants. The dispatcher immediately broadcast this description via radio to officers. Parks stated that the suspect just left the scene heading south on Second Avenue. She also accurately described the street location. Further, Parks reported objective facts that indicated criminal rather than legal activity.

The court further elaborated that Ms. Parks reinforced her factual basis for these allegations by stating that the incident “just now happened” and that the car was directly across the street from her house. Parks reported facts she personally observed. The Court decided the information was reliably obtained and that the police corroborated the information from Ms. Parks’ tip.

Consequently, the totality of the circumstances supported Howerton’s  Terry stop. The Court of Appeals upheld his conviction.