Ask Standing On The Shoulders Of Giant Midgets: Texas psychics and no bodies at home...

>> Monday, June 20, 2011

Hi, how was your weekend? Mine was alright. Ready for some "Ask Standing On The Shoulders Of Giant Midgets"? Yes? Excellent!

Phiala posted:

Your thoughts on the police search of the house with the anonymous tip of many bodies, the out-of-control news coverage, and the revelation that the tip came from a psychic?

That's an excellent question, because when I first read about that in the news, before the police went and found exactly zero bodies at the house, my immediate reaction was, "What the bloody hell is wrong with people?" And I thought about doing a blog entry about it, but I decided to wait because while there's exactly zero evidence for any kind of psychic phenomena, it was just possible that the other shoe would drop and piles and piles of bodies would be found. When the tip unsurprisingly turned out to be bogus, I still thought about doing a piece on it, but wasn't sure how to approach it.

Thanks for giving me an in!

I suppose the place to start is that alternative footwear has been raining down like flies from a bug zapper since the Liberty County Sheriff's Department ended up looking like tools back on June 6th of this year. According to some reports, "Angel", the purported psychic says she was just calling in a social services welfare report on live children in jeopardy, and she apparently is denying that she claimed there were any bodies at all. Law enforcement, meanwhile, insists that the tip came from a "psychic" and that this gave them pause, but claims they were obligated to take the tip seriously. Some media observers connected to NPR say the whole thing was the media's fault for credulously rushing to press without all the facts on the ground (see here and here. So, is "Angel" backtracking or is she telling the truth and wires got crossed at the sheriff's department, or are the Lincoln County officers covering their asses and Angel's now fibbing about whether she made paranormal claims, and in any case is the reason this blew up and became an international sensation that the media will now rush to press with anything on a slow news day and don't know shit from Shinola anyway?

Well, the answer to the last may be "yes" regardless.

So, anyway, there we are: turns out that we don't know exactly what happened beyond the Lincoln County, Texas, SO got some kind of phone tip from someone who may or may not have claimed to be psychic, and they went and tore up someone's yard looking for bodies that may or may not have been reported to be there, and didn't find jack. And the press may have gone with the psychic angle because, well, it's the kind of thing you see in movies, right?

But what about the sheriffs' claim that they had to look into the tip? Well, maybe, sort of, kind of. The gold standard on anonymous tips is a United States Supreme Court case, Florida v. J.L. - 529 U.S. 266 (2000); in 1995, police in Miami received a tip that a black guy in a plaid shirt was hanging around a bus stop and had a gun; when the police showed up at the bus stop to investigate, they found a juvenile, J.L., milling around in a plaid shirt and they searched him and found a gun. J.L. was found responsible for underage possession of a firearm, but the SCOTUS unanimously overturned the verdict. Why?

Because a phoned-in tip has to do more than identify a particular person: it has to have sufficient "indicia of reliability" to give law enforcement officers some basis for forming a reasonable suspicion that a crime is actually taking place. Anonymous tips are inherently suspect, because whereas police may be able to judge the credibility and history of reliability of a known or identified informant, the unidentified informant could be anyone--could be phoning the tip in from a lunatic asylum or just to cause trouble for some personal enemy. An anonymous tip might give the police a basis for some nominal investigation: to conduct a "knock-and-talk", for instance, or to put an individual under observation to see if any specific illegal conduct is occurring (in J.L., all the kid in question was doing as far as could be observed was hang out at a bus stop while wearing plaid--hardly suspicious behavior). An anonymous tip might also be buttressed by additional verifiable details: i.e. an anonymous tip that someone wearing plaid at a bus stop has a gun is insufficient to trigger a reasonable suspicion of criminal behavior, but a tip that a tall, thin white male who is around 45 years old will be at the train station between 4:30 P.M. and 5:15 dressed in a black suit and carrying a powder-blue Samsonite hard case full of heroin, dropped off by an African-American woman driving a white Cadillac might be sufficiently detailed to be deemed credible if such is observed arriving at the train station (these details are all fictitious, by the way).

Some of the news reports indicate that Lincoln County SO responded to the tip by going to the house and discovering blood on the porch (a member of the household's boyfriend tried to commit suicide there and was hospitalized) and a "foul odor", which led to their obtaining a search warrant. I find this a little troubling, phoned in by a "psychic" or no, because it doesn't sound like there was much basis for the issuance of the search warrant. We don't know what details "Angel" gave to the police in her then-anonymous tip, but it would appear all the police had to go on was a description of the property that (1) wasn't clear enough to get them to the right house the first time they tried to visit the property (!!) and (2) probably could have been obtained from Google Maps. They had no basis at that point for evaluating whether "Angel" herself was trustworthy, and if she in fact identified herself as a psychic or as having received her information from angels, one might think that would tend to discredit her reliability (in retrospect, the sheriffs are now saying that "there was perhaps a moment of pause" over the "psychic" nature of the tip--and wouldn't that undermine a claim that the tip had sufficient indicia of reliability to be acted upon?

I don't have any problem with the Lincoln County Sheriff getting a tip--even if the tipster claims to be psychic--and sending a deputy out to tap on the door and see if everything's alright. You may be thinking, "But the caller said she was psychic and psychic powers are a bunch of horseshit." I agree, but suppose for the moment that someone connected with the household is an accessory to crimes committed there or has become familiar with crimes committed there because someone they know has loose lips--a surprisingly common circumstance; they call it in and when they're asked how they know about all these bodies, they don't want to admit knowledge or complicity or provide information that could lead back to their identification, so, ummm, "I have psychic powers and I have had a vision from beyond--oooooooooooooo," click, dialtone, right? Kind of a lame excuse, but it gets you off the phone and you can lay your head down on the pillow knowing you at least tried to do the right thing, sort of, and if the Sawyers keep eating hitchhikers, well, you know, now it's not your fault, it's the cops fault because you called it in, right? You did your part.

But when the deputy gets out there and all he finds are stains and a smell? Well, that ought to be the end of it. Maybe he can walk around a little and see if there's anything in plain view that looks out-of-whack, anything that would lead to reasonable suspicion or probable cause (or even a decision that exigent circumstances justify calling for backup and kicking in the door). But if nothing's there, nothing's there.

Y'know, there's a really good question at the bottom of what the Lincoln County SO did: supposing they had found bodies, would the search warrant that was issued based on the information they had stand up at trial or would that entire pile of bodies have been suppressed as evidence for being the fruit of an illegal search and seizure? This is why it's pretty damn important for law enforcement to actually do a little leg work when acting on anonymous tips. The Supreme Court doesn't like anonymous tips, and rightly so, because such tips offend the originalist and civil libertarian wings of the Court alike; the conservatives start ranting about The Star Chamber and the liberals spout off about penumbras of privacy rights and the dignity of man. How often do the left and right wings of the SCOTUS agree on anything, and J.L. was a unanimous decision from the Court, remember.

Be a bit embarrassing, don't you think, to have a whole mountain of corpses and you can't show a single dad-blamed one to the jurors because you heard about them from a witch or something?

I could perhaps go on a bit about psychics and cops in general, but I think this is maybe a good place to wrap this post up. Hope that answered your question, Phiala, and thank you again. Anyone have any thoughts, comments, follow-ups?


Phiala Monday, June 20, 2011 at 12:34:00 PM EDT  

Thanks. Aside from the bizarre and humorous aspects, I did want an educated opinion on the role of anonymous tips, and what the police should or should not do in such cases.

I mean, ignoring psychics is always a good plan, but where do you legally draw the line?

Untlyini: my psychic name.

Dana Teel Monday, June 20, 2011 at 3:59:00 PM EDT  

I'm not a LEO or a lawyer so what you're saying makes sense to me.

What I understand from all this is that it was a good thing that a pile of bodies weren't found for multiple reasons.

Steve Buchheit Tuesday, June 21, 2011 at 12:05:00 PM EDT  

What seems strange is that this was done on one tip. That just boggles my mind.

I'm all for people calling in tips to the police. The public is our police department's best source of information. And it's always better for our police to know about out of the ordinary things (strange cars, rampaging children, etc). It might mean nothing, but I can't tell you how many times I heard, "I was going to call about this, but then decided it wasn't a big deal." When if they would have called, we might have been able to stop a crime.

But we also don't go on singular anonymous tips that aren't specific, don't include evidence, or give us something to go on. However, if get many anonymous tips, from differing sources, yeah, we'll check it out.

So I have to believe that this home was being watched, and that the Sheriffs had previous run ins. However, to go that hog crazy, it's astounding.

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