The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last Wednesday that, when certain factors are present, flight upon seeing police is sufficient evidence to justify stopping and searching a suspect. By overturning a lower court’s verdict, the Court narrowly established a precedent based upon a naive understanding of human behavior and what should constitute proper police procedure. Although broadly expanding the capabilities of the police would certainly increase their effectiveness, the Court’s ruling allows this to be accomplished by undermining certain civil rights established by the Constitution.
In its ruling of Illinois v. Wardlow, the Court overturned an Illinois Supreme Court verdict that found that fleeing from police could not provide “reasonable” suspicion that would justify stopping and searching a suspect. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist stated that in the case if a man who fled Illinois police, his flight in an area commonly known for its heavy drug trade was, however, sufficient to justify a search. The Illinois case concerned Sam Wardlow, who turned around and ran away upon seeing four police cars on patrol in inner-city Chicago. In a 5-4 vote, the Court agreed when certain factors are present, such as when flight occurs in a high-crime area, flight could provide enough evidence of suspicious behavior.
However, a person’s presence in a high-crime area combined with flight from police is not enough to establish that a person is probably guilty of some unidentified crime. Fear of police is common, especially in high-crime areas where citizens are concerned about being harassed for information about particular crimes. And the recent controversies surrounding “racial profiling” in states including New Jersey and Massachusetts has further encouraged many minority residents to be wary of interactions with police. It is also common for many children, as well as adolescents who might be behaving mischievously, to flee the police, yet they can now be treated as criminal suspects. In his dissenting opinion, Justice Stevens further expressed concern that certain persons who flee because of fear of brutality would be subject to unreasonable searches.
The recent ruling also contradicts accepted practice. Several state Supreme Courts besides Illinois’ have previously ruled in opposition to the Court. New York and New Jersey have both found that flight cannot be enough to justify police searches, even if it is combined with other suggestions of guilt, such as presence in high-crime areas. And the Fourth Amendment explicitly offers protection of citizens against “unreasonable” searches.
Although Justice Rehnquist clearly stated that flight alone cannot automatically justify a stop and search, he stated equally clearly that, when combined with less compelling indications of suspicion, flight is sufficient enough to warrant investigation. However, applications of the Court’s ruling will be abused by police and will justify harassment. The ruling also severely restricts reasonable behavior. More tangible and compelling evidence of suspicious behavior needs to be present to prevent police from abusing the innocent.