I'm asking this hypothetical situation mostly as I was considering writing a story with the premise and want the story to be legally accurate, but also because I'm frankly curious how the law would handle such a situation.

Let's say someone (call him Bob) got sick of police being unable to act against individuals everyone 'knows' to be committing a crime due to lack of sufficient evidence to get a warrant. One day he decides to take matters into his own hands and he calls into 911 with a made up claim that he witnessed a crime take place and a gunman drag someone into a known crack house.

As I understand it when the police arrive they will have sufficient justification to enter the crack house without a warrant to intervene with a crime believed to be in progress. They won't find evidence of the original, made up, crime, but once they have entered the house they will likely see evidence of other crimes. Since they were there in good faith the evidence of other crimes within 'plain sight' in the house would be fair game and could be used to make arrests and/or get a warrant to search the rest of the house for more evidence. Despite the fraudulent nature of the original claim arrests could be made since Bob was not an agent of the police. So far this is covering legal concepts I think I understand.

Now lets say that the police were never able to trace the original fraudulent call to Bob, and Bob gets it in his head to act as a the world's least interesting vigilante. He starts regularly making fraudulent calls claiming to witness a crime in progress to the police to give them justification to enter locations that are commonly believed to have illegal activity within them in a hopes of helping the police to collect enough evidence to make arrests.

While Bob changes the number he is calling from and as much of his MO as he can each time the police would noticed a pattern of fraudulent claims and have reached the point that they can usually guess when a call is a fraudulent one made by Bob, but they can never be certain it's him or that a crime isn't actually happen. Assume the police have actively stated they do not support or condone Bob's actions, have made a public plea for him to stop, and are trying (but failing) to find and arrest Bob as well.

I assume the police would continue to respond to the claims in case the call is real and a crime is actively in progress. Is there a point where they would no longer possess sufficient cause to enter a premise to investigate a believed crime in progress due to their suspicion the crime may not be legitimate? If they do have justification to continue to enter the premises then at what point, if ever, would evidence witnessed as a result of responding to the potentially fraudulent calls not be admissible?


Calls to 911 are treated as genuine at all times until the complaint is dealt with. This is because most people only call 911 for legitimate reasons and even some criminals call 911 because they want them to know the situation (Bomb scares are an extreme version of this as they cause a lot of disruption; they cannot be ignored because if the cops were to call bullshit and it was proven not to be bullshit, it's gonna be a lot worse than if they treat it as real and find out it's an alarm clock.). From the point of view of the first responders, whether cops, fire, or EMS, the call is always real and to be treated as such.

Entering without warrant is legit if they have a probable cause of a crime or a person in distress, such as a hostage or a person in medical need; the emergency call is almost certainly sufficient. As you correctly said, at this point any evidence of a crime in plain sight is good reason to pursue the criminal acts unrelated to the original call. 911 calls are recorded so they can prove to the courts they got a tip and were following up.

However, tying up emergency services with fake crimes is still not a proper use of 911 and there are ways to find people making bogus calls. 911 also traces phone calls in case of prank callers or even generally locating people in distress (if the dispatcher has to tell someone who is hiding from robbers in her house to be quiet, they can still dispatch officers to the general area by pinging the phone's metadata) so a string of burners will be noticed. Burner numbers can be traced to point of sale and most stores that carry them will have cameras (staff that remembers, not so much). If using pay phones, in this day and age, again there is likely cameras because the frequency of the latter and the infrequency of the former. Phone Booths haven't been a thing for far longer, so much so that the Christopher Reeves Superman film had a famous gag about how Phone Booths were phased out, when Clark Kent, needing to switch to his iconic Persona, runs to a bank of payphones (all without booths) and desperately looks for a new place to shed his clothes... in the 1970s. Either way, cops would be looking for nearby cameras to identify you and without many pay phones reliably lying around it won't take long.

The more dangerous aspect of this is that drugs and organized crime are pretty much hand in hand. It could be the crack house you just called in is well known to the cops, but they're trying to use it to find out who the supplier is. The vigilante could be ruining their sting by calling in a true threat. If he does this too much, the local gang members will be looking out for him and may try to find him too; and whereas the police have rules, the gangs do not.

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    Yes. Again, 9/11 calls are considered to be True Threats, so they must be treated as if the emergency is happening thus giving valid cause for warrantless entry. So long as it is in plane site or a plausible hiding spot for the initial incident, it's fair to use. (I.e. if you find drugs in a sugar bowl on a hostage situation, it would be ruled out because who honestly thinks the hostage might be inside a sugar bowl). – hszmv Jan 24 '19 at 19:12
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    There is a quite elaborate jurisprudence regarding when information from anonymous informants constitutes probable cause, and the mere fact that the anonymous informant did so via a 911 call does not, per se, suffice to establish probable cause. Given the general loosening of probable cause standards, however, in recent jurisprudence, the plain sight discoveries of evidence made while serving a warrant issued based upon information that was false but believed to provide probable cause would probably not be suppressed in a criminal case. – ohwilleke Jan 29 '19 at 18:18
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    @ohwilleke: I can't believe I missed this point, but it's basically SWATTING someone to give law enforcement cause to enter someone's property and find plain sight evidence of an actual crime. – hszmv Jan 29 '19 at 18:33
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    @hszmv It most definitely is SWATTING and it very likely constitutes both criminal and tortious conduct by the person providing the false information, but that fact isn't controlling in a case where police get a warrant based on anonymous evidence that they do not know to be false that has indica of credibility of some kind. – ohwilleke Jan 29 '19 at 18:37
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    @ohwilleke: The situation would more likely provide a warrant exception in the form of exigent circumstances OR Safety Check as it is called into 911 as a crime in progress in which the life of an individual is in jeopardy. The cops wouldn't wait around for a warrant to clear before they try to get control of the situation. At this point they are making a good faith lawful entry. – hszmv Jan 29 '19 at 18:48

So I make a 911 call claiming there is a crime in progress at address X. If the police believes that this is fake, but they are either legally required to visit X even if they are sure it is fake, or they believe it is fake, but are not sufficiently sure to take the risk or not going, in these two cases they can go to X. And then whatever they see in open view is fair game.

On the other hand, if the police believes my call is fake, but they just see it as a good opportunity to have a look at X, then they wouldn't be entering lawfully.

In both cases, if a person living at X goes to court because of what the police found, then they would try to convince a jury that the visit was unlawful. Depending on the exact situation, the jury, and the quality of the lawyers involved, they might succeed or fail.

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