What You Know, I Know
Law enforcement officers talk to each other during the course of the day.
They talk in person and by radio, cell phone, email, instant messenger and mobile data terminals. In all those conversations, information is exchanged, including information officers use to solve crimes.
Sometimes, that information sharing is deliberate, like when dispatch puts out a BOLO with specific data. Sometimes it is more casual, when one officer mentions a situation that leads another officer to make a traffic stop or arrest. But both methods are vital in good police work to make cases and protect the public.
So when can an officer use information learned from another officer?
Both Kentucky and federal courts acknowledge “collective knowledge” or “fellow officer” doctrine, which recognizes that officers constantly communicate information to fellow officers and take action based upon information they receive in return. It is not expected that officers have time to cross-examine fellow officers about the information they share.
In U.S. v. Hensley, 469 U.S. 221 (1981), Cincinnati police issued a wanted notice for Thomas Hensley, who was believed to be involved in an armed robbery. The notice did not indicate there was a warrant, but only that he was wanted for investigative purposes.
Covington Police Department received the notice and shared it with officers during roll call. Officers familiar with Hensley began looking for him. Hensley was the subject of a traffic stop and other officers, hearing the radio transmission, immediately inquired whether there was an active warrant resulting from the notice.
The officers conducting the traffic stop discovered Hensley’s passenger was a convicted felon and there was a visible firearm in the car. A further search of the car produced more firearms. Both men were arrested, since Hensley, too, was a convicted felon and prohibited from possessing firearms.
Hensley argued he was improperly stopped based solely on the wanted notice. However, the Court agreed that such a communication, based on reasonable suspicion, was sufficient to allow officers without direct knowledge of the wanted notice’s underlying facts to legally make the stop. It was unnecessary and counterproductive to require officers to separately question each communication from other agencies.
‘May assume its reliability’
In Lamb v. Commonwealth, 510 S.W.3d 316 (2017), the Kentucky Supreme Court agreed that, “the knowledge upon which the arresting officer bases probable cause to arrest need not be derived exclusively from his or her own personal observations. Under the collective knowledge doctrine, an arresting officer is entitled to act on the strength of the knowledge communicated from a fellow officer, and they may assume its reliability, provided he is not otherwise aware of circumstances sufficient to materially impeach the information received.”
In Commonwealth v. Blake, 540 S.W.3d 369 (2018), the Court agreed that an officer who directs a second officer to conduct a traffic stop, was “no more (or less) intrusive” than the officer conducting the stop themselves. In effect, the reasonable suspicion of one officer could be transferred to the second officer, justifying the stop.
Most recently, in Commonwealth v. Smith, 542 S.W.3d 276 (2018), the Court agreed that a traffic violation, observed by one deputy and shared with another deputy by radio, was sufficient to authorize the second deputy to make a traffic stop. However, when the deputy in this case conducted the stop, he “did none of the routine matters associated with a traffic stop.” Instead, he engaged in other activities, including a canine sniff, rather than running a license or writing a citation.
Those activities made the subsequent discovery of contraband improper, and suppression of the evidence was later justified.
The Court does, however, place certain limits on use of the doctrine. For example, in Brumley v. Commonwealth, 413 S.W.3d 280 (Ky. 2013), the court recognized the importance of sharing information between officers. However, sharing information about possible guns in a subject’s residence did not automatically provide reasonable suspicion that officers were in danger justifying a warrantless search.
The Court noted that “an overwhelming amount of law-abiding citizens in Kentucky have guns in their home for lawful purposes.”
Further, in U.S. v. Lyons, 687 F.3d 754 (6th Cir. 2012), the Court noted that the primary boundary for the doctrine is the Fourth Amendment and that, for example, a “traffic stop based on collective knowledge must be supported by a proper basis, and must remain reasonably-related in its scope to the situation at hand.”
It is critical to apply “traditional Fourth Amendment restrictions equally to the collective knowledge doctrine” to ensure “that communications among law enforcement remain an efficient conduit of permissible police activity, rather than a prophylactic against behavior that violates constitutional rights.”
Drawing from another circuit, in U.S. v. Williams, 627 F.3d 247 (7th Cir. 2010), the Court agreed that application of the rule requires three separate questions: (1) is the officer taking the action acting in objective reliance on the information received; (2) does the officer providing the information have facts supporting the level of suspicion required; and (3) is the stop no more intrusive than would have been permissible for the officer requesting it?
Communication is the lifeblood of effective law enforcement. Officers talk to each other, dispatch and the public every day. Sharing the information learned with confidence, including how the information gained may be used, is critical. Officers who regularly share information with others help build collaborative relationships and ensure that investigative- and safety-related intelligence is effective.