FindLaw Criminal Law Summaries


Case: Illinois v. Wardlow

Issue: Is unprovoked flight from uniformed police officers in a high crime area enough reason to justify a Terry stop by police?

Facts: Shortly after noon, a four car caravan of police officers was converging on an area known for heavy narcotics trafficking to investigate drug transactions. One of the two uniformed officers in the last car "observed respondent Wardlow standing next to the building holding an opaque bag. Respondent looked in the direction of the officers and fled." The officers followed Wardlow in their car and cornered and stopped him. One of the officers then frisked him for weapons because "in his experience it was common for there to be weapons in the near vicinity of narcotics transactions." Squeezing the bag respondent carried, Officer Nolan "felt a heavy, hard object similar to the shape of a gun. The officer then opened the bag and discovered a .38-caliber handgun with five live rounds of ammunition. The officers arrested Wardlow."

"The Illinois trial court denied respondent’s motion to suppress, finding the gun was recovered during a lawful stop and frisk." Following a bench trial upon stipulated facts, Wardlow was convicted of unlawful use of a weapon by a felon. The Illinois Appellate Court reversed, finding that the officers did not have reasonable suspicion sufficient to justify an investigative stop under  Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968). While the Illinois Supreme Court rejected the Appellate Court’s conclusion that Wardlow was not in a high crime area, it agreed with the reversal of Wardlow’s conviction, stating that sudden flight in such an area does not create a reasonable suspicion justifying a Terry stop. The Illinois Supreme Court relied on the United States Supreme Court's holding in  Florida v. Royer, 460 U.S. 491 (1983), that "although police have the right to approach individuals and ask questions, the individual has no obligation to respond. The person may decline to answer and go on his or her way."

Holding: Wardlow's presence in an area of heavy narcotics trafficking and his unprovoked flight upon noticing the police, gave officers reasonable suspicion to conduct a Terry stop.

Reasoning: Chief Justice Rehnquist, who delivered the opinion of the Court, started by pointing out that under  Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968), "an officer may, consistent with the Fourth Amendment, conduct a brief, investigatory stop when the officer has a reasonable, articulable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot." This means that an officer must have more than an "inchoate and unparticularized suspicion or ‘hunch’ of criminal activity." Rehnquist noted that "[a]n individual’s presence in an area of expected criminal activity" is not alone enough to justify a stop and frisk under  Brown v. Texas, 443 U.S. 47 (1979). Nevertheless, officers are not required to ignore that a stop occurs in a "high crime area," which is a relevant contextual consideration under Terry.  Adams v. Williams, 407 U.S. 143, 144 and 147-148 (1972). Additionally, the Court has recognized that "nervous, evasive behavior is a pertinent factor in determining reasonable suspicion." United States v. Brignoni-Ponce, 422 U.S. 873, 885 (1975).

The Court distinguished Wardlow's actions from those of the defendant in Royer, stating that "unprovoked flight is simply not a mere refusal to cooperate" because flight is not "‘going about one’s business’; in fact, it is just the opposite."

Finally, the Court pointed out that while "flight is not necessarily indicative of ongoing criminal activity…Terry accepts the risk that officers may stop innocent people. Indeed, the Fourth Amendment accepts that risk in connection with more drastic police action," such as full-fledged arrests and detentions based upon probable cause. The intrusion involved in a Terry stop and frisk is minimal. If the officer does not find probable cause, the suspect is allowed to go on his way.

Other Opinions: Justice Stevens, joined by Justices Souter, Ginsburg and Breyer, concurred in part and dissented in part. Stevens was pleased that the Court had not endorsed a per se rule, either that police may detain anyone who flees at the sight of an officer or that flight upon seeing an officer can never, by itself, justify a Terry stop. Stevens noted that flight can have numerous causes, a number of which are completely innocent and that the probative value of flight is a "function of the varied circumstances in which it occurs." Thus, "[t]he totality of the circumstances . . . must dictate the result."

However, Stevens disagreed with the Court’s decision that the stop was justified in this particular case. He explained that the facts of the case were insufficient to support the stop. In particular, Stevens noted that the "testimony is most noticeable for what it fails to reveal," such as, whether Officer Nolan was in a marked or unmarked car, whether the other cars in the caravan were marked, whether the officers in the other cars were in uniform, whether anyone other than Wardlow was nearby, how fast the caravan was driving, whether Wardlow noticed the other patrol cars or whether those cars had passed him by before he began to run. Moreover, according to Stevens, the inference that Wardlow’s flight suggested wrongdoing is based entirely on the officer’s statement: "He looked in our direction and began fleeing."

Comment: Had Wardlow remained stationary when the police approached (as J.L. did in  Florida v. J.L.), or simply gone about his business, any resultant Terry stop would have been invalid.

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