The Fellow Officer Rule

Hypothetically, you have a police officer who while driving her car past a intersection observes a individual selling crack on the street corner, he directs another patrol car following directly behind him to arrest the individual. Can he do this? how is this legal?

The collective knowledge doctrine, or “fellow officer rule”, provides that in certain circumstances, several officers’ observations can be aggregated to establish the probable cause needed for a warrantless search or seizure, or to obtain a search or arrest warrant under the Fourth Amendment. The rule applies when officers are acting in concert and cumulatively the officers possess sufficient knowledge to establish probable cause to arrest a particular suspect.

This very issue was litigated in Washington v. James Maesse. There the issue before the court was whether the arresting officer had probable cause to arrest, given the facts and circumstances known to other officers involved in the investigation, including the one who directed the arresting officer to arrest the defendant.

Frequently when a law enforcement officer executes a search warrant he has relied upon information that was gathered by other officers or communicated over police broadcasts. A police officer is generally presumed to be a reliable source. Consequently, no special showing of reliability need be made as part of the probable cause determination. Information relayed to officer by other non-testifying officers involved in the same criminal investigation is admissible and does not violate a defendant’s confrontation rights. However, in order for the observing officer’s probable cause to be relied upon by the arresting officer, the former must have a basis for his or her belief. The courts have applied this doctrine where teams of officers, central dispatches, and police computer systems, police from other jurisdictions or agencies, and undercover officers have shared information leading to the establishment of probable cause.

Under the fellow officer rule, each officer acting as part of a team is deemed to cumulatively possess all of the information known to the members of the team. This rule has regularly been applied to determine probable cause in felony arrests. But, in 2013, the Washington State Supreme Court declined to extend the fellow officer rule to apply to misdemeanor offenses.

If you or someone you know has been arrested or charged with a crime, you may want to discuss your circumstances with a Criminal law attorney.  At Blair & Kim, PLLC our attorney’s are experienced and dedicated to helping clients achieve positive resolutions in their cases. Don’t hesitate, contact us today to see how we might be able to help!


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