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Illinois v. Wardlow

Citation. Illinois v. Wardlow, 528 U.S. 119, 120 S. Ct. 673, 145 L. Ed. 2d 570, 2000 Cal. Daily Op. Service 299, 2000 Daily Journal DAR 389, 1999 Colo. J. C.A.R. 183, 13 Fla. L. Weekly Fed. S 20 (U.S. Jan. 12, 2000)
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Brief Fact Summary.

Defendant William Wardlow was stopped and frisked after looking towards police officers and then running in an area known for heavy narcotics trafficking.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

Nervous, evasive behavior and location in a high crime area are relevant factors in determining the reasonable suspicion necessary for a Terry stop under the Fourth Amendment.


While holding an opaque bag in an area known for heavy narcotics trafficking, the defendant flees on seeing police officers patrolling, and two officers catch up to him and conduct a pat-down weapons search finding a .38 caliber handgun on his person. Trial court denied the defendant’s motion to suppress, but the appellate court reversed. The Illinois Supreme Court upheld the lower appellate court’s result stating that the combination of sudden flight and presence in a high crime area did not reach the status of reasonable suspicion necessary to justify a Terry stop. The Supreme Court granted certiorari to the State of Illinois.


Are officers justified in suspecting that a defendant was involved in criminal activity based on the combination of their presence in an area of frequent narcotics trafficking and the defendant’s unprovoked flight on noticing them?


Yes. Reverse and remand the judgment.
Reasonable suspicion justifying a Terry stop is met in this situation. Determination of reasonable suspicion has to be based on commonsense inferences about human behavior, and officers are justified in suspecting that defendant was involved in criminal activity based on his flight and the fact that he was in a high crime area.

Officers are not required to ignore relevant characteristics of a location in determining whether further investigation is warranted.  Headlong flight is suggestive of wrongdoing.

Concurrence. Justice John Paul Stevens concurred in part and dissented in part in the course of saying he agreed with the court’s rejection of a rule proposed by the state courts authorizing the detention of anyone who flees at the sight of a police car. He also rejected the idea of the opposite rule, that it would never justify a Terry stop. He also expressed the view that even in a high crime neighborhood, unprovoked flight does not automatically lead to reasonable suspicion justifying a Terry stop and frisk.


This case shifts the balance in the direction of police freedom as opposed to individual rights. The question remains however, to what extent this case restricts the ability of citizens to avoid the police and yet not still be stopped. May walking into a convenience store when police drive up become the basis for a Terry stop? It seems unlikely, but these are the issues that this result creates.

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