Illinois v. Warlow: Flight from Police Officer and High Crime Area; Reasonable Suspicion (01/12/2000)

Illinois v. Wardlow

Is a person’s sudden and unprovoked flight from identifiable police officers, patrolling an area high in crime, sufficiently suspicious to justify the officers stopping  that person?

Argued: 11/02/1999

Decision Date: 01/12/2000

Decision Record: 5-4; yes

Justices in Favor: William Rehnquist, Sandra Day O’Connor, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas

Justices Dissenting: John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer

Effect of the Decision

This case ruled that the nervous attitude of the person fleeing the high crime area was enough suspicion for the police officers to stop and search him.

In Favor

In the favoring side of this case, on the side of the state of Illinois, attorney Richard A. Devine argued, “On September 9th, 1995, when William Wardlow looked at Officer Nolan and took flight, the officer had reason to believe that there was a problem.

He pursued and stopped Wardlow to investigate and discovered a loaded gun in his possession.

The three key factors in this brief statement are flight from a clearly identified police officer without provocation.

These factors provided reasonable suspicion supporting a Terry stop.”


In the opposition, on the side of Wardlow, attorney Malcolm L. Stewart argued, “It’s certainly true, as respondent and his amici point out, that individuals may, on some occasions, have innocent motives for fleeing the police.

But the purpose of a Terry stop is not to apprehend individuals who are known to be guilty of criminal offenses; rather, it’s to provide a means by which police may resolve ambiguities in situations where they have reasonable… reason to suspect criminal activity, but lack probable cause to make an arrest.

And in our view, flight from identifiable police officers will ordinarily correlate sufficiently with likely involvement in criminal activity.”


On the side of the majority, Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote the opinion for the court. He wrote, “Respondent and amici also argue that there are innocent reasons for flight from police and that, therefore, flight is not necessarily indicative of ongoing criminal activity. This fact is undoubtedly true, but does not establish a violation of the Fourth Amendment. Even in Terry, the conduct justifying the stop was ambiguous and susceptible of an innocent explanation. The officer observed two individuals pacing back and forth in front of a store, peering into the window and periodically conferring. Terry, 392 U.S., at 5—6. All of this conduct was by itself lawful, but it also suggested that the individuals were casing the store for a planned robbery. Terryrecognized that the officers could detain the individuals to resolve the ambiguity. Id., at 30.

    In allowing such detentions, Terry accepts the risk that officers may stop innocent people. Indeed, the Fourth Amendment accepts that risk in connection with more drastic police action; persons arrested and detained on probable cause to believe they have committed a crime may turn out to be innocent. The Terrystop is a far more minimal intrusion, simply allowing the officer to briefly investigate further. If the officer does not learn facts rising to the level of probable cause, the individual must be allowed to go on his way. But in this case the officers found respondent in possession of a handgun, and arrested him for violation of an Illinois firearms statute. No question of the propriety of the arrest itself is before us.”

In opposition, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote, “The State, along with the majority of the Court, relies as well on the assumption that this flight occurred in a high crime area. Even if that assumption is accurate, it is insufficient because even in a high crime neighborhood unprovoked flight does not invariably lead to reasonable suspicion. On the contrary, because many factors providing innocent motivations for unprovoked flight are concentrated in high crime areas, the character of the neighborhood arguably makes an inference of guilt less appropriate, rather than more so. Like unprovoked flight itself, presence in a high crime neighborhood is a fact too generic and susceptible to innocent explanation to satisfy the reasonable suspicion inquiry. See Brown v. Texas, 443 U.S. 47, 52 (1979); see also n. 15, supra.

    It is the State’s burden to articulate facts sufficient to support reasonable suspicion. Brown v. Texas, 443 U.S. 47, 52 (1979); see also Florida v. Royer, 460 U.S. 491, 500 (1983) (plurality opinion). In my judgment, Illinois has failed to discharge that burden. I am not persuaded that the mere fact that someone standing on a sidewalk looked in the direction of a passing car before starting to run is sufficient to justify a forcible stop and frisk.”

My Opinion:

In this case, I agree with the majority opinion. Wardlow fled an area with identifiable police officers around and high crime. It’s no wonder the police stopped him. By running from an area such as Chicago, that’s definitely enough reason for a police officer to stop him. It indicates fear and anxiousness. And that evidently leads to people thinking you may have done something bad or are planning to do something unacceptable by the police. This justifies and provides reasonable suspicion for the police officers to search Wardlow. This was not a violation of the Fourth Amendment.

*Justice Leaning L=Left, LC=Left of Center, C=Center, RC=Right of Center, R=Right

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