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'Stalking horse' tips cause dismissal of drug charges

Anonymous tips are a staple of police investigations, but the tips must be authentic. In rare cases, police officers have occasionally resorted to a tactic known as a "stalking horse," in which a police officer provides a supposedly anonymous tip to a parole officer who then undertakes a search that is beyond the police officer's constitutional authority. The parole officer can then instigate the search of a parolee's home without obtaining a search warrant based on probable cause. In a pair of recent drug arrests in Lackawanna County, supposedly anonymous "stalking horse" tips provided by police officers and not by informants caused the court to dismiss all criminal charges against two defendants.

According to an investigation by the Scranton Times-Tribune, in April and June 2014, state parole officers received what they believed were anonymous telephone tips advising them to search the homes of two Scranton men for drugs. Both men were parolees, and the parole agents were not required to obtain search warrants based on probable cause before searching their homes. The searches yielded 963 bags of heroin, cash and two guns. The two men were charged with several drug-related crimes.

Lawyers for both suspects moved to suppress the drug evidence because it was obtained using the "stalking horse" tip. The judge dismissed the charges against one of the men, and the other agreed to plead guilty to a single count of conspiracy to sell drugs before the judge ruled. That defendant has now filed an appeal seeking a dismissal based on the claim that his lawyer was ineffective because he failed to press the stalking horse argument.

Representatives of the county have denied that police and prosecutors were relying on stalking horse tips. The prosecutors in the case claim that they did not learn about the source of the tips until months after the arrests. In any event, the controversy is certain to echo in the halls of courthouses across the state for months to come.

Source: Scranton Times-Tribune, "Man seeks to overturn conviction based on evidence police lied in court documents," Terrie Morgan-Besecker, Sep. 25, 2016

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