Supreme Court expands pursuit powers of police

April 24, 1991|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court gave police much wider power yesterday to use chases or other "shows of force" to stop individuals on the street or in other public places when the officers have only vague reasons for thinking crime may be afoot.

An individual's constitutional right of privacy, the court ruled 7-2, does not exist during the time the police are approaching that person, even if the officers make gestures that clearly signal that the individual must stop for questioning.

Only when the individual is actually under direct police control, and submits to it, does the privacy right of the Fourth Amendment come into play to limit police investigative actions, the court declared in an opinion written by Justice Antonin Scalia.

The two dissenting justices complained that the decision goes much further than the court has gone in the 23 years since it first allowed officers to make brief street stops of individuals even though police do not then have enough evidence to justifya formal arrest.

Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the dissenters, said the new ruling was "seriously flawed" and departed sharply from a string of court rulings saying that the right of privacy comes into play any time a "reasonable person" confronted by a police officer would not feel free to go on his or her way.

The decision "will encourage unlawful displays of force that will frighten countless innocent citizens into surrendering whatever privacy rights they may still have," the dissenting opinion said. It added that the decision would even allow an officer to fire a weapon at someone eluding police grasp "as long as he misses his target" and to take other menacing gestures to get people in public places to cooperate.

Justice Scalia's majority opinion focused on the meaning of the word "seizure" in the Constitution's FourthAmendment, which bars police from making an "unreasonable search or seizure." If police do not engage in either a search or a seizure, what they do is not covered by the Fourth Amendment's privacy guarantee.

A police seizure of an individual does not occur, the majority ruled, unless the officer actually touches the individual or unless the individual reacts to a police show of force by actually submitting to the officer's control.

The ruling grew out of a police chase of a youth in what Justice Scalia called "a high-crime area" of Oakland, Calif., three years ago. As an officer chased the youth, who had committed no crime in police view, the youth threw away a small bag of "crack" cocaine. A California court barred that and other evidence obtained in the chase, because it ruled that the youth was "seized" unconstitutionally by the chase itself. That decision was overturned yesterday.

Yesterday's ruling appeared likely to have its main impact on troubled urban neighborhoods because police are more likely to be suspicious of individuals they encounter on the street in those areas than in the more peaceful parts of a community.

In the Oakland case, the state of California conceded that the officers had no real basis for the suspicions that led them to chase the youth. But Justice Scalia suggested in a footnote that it contradicts "common sense" to suggest that it would be "unreasonable" for police to take off in pursuit of "young men who scatter in panic upon the mere sighting of the police."

That footnote quoted the Bible, in the Book of Proverbs, saying that "the wicked flee when no man pursueth."

The dissenters said that the footnote was based upon the "mistaken" assumption that innocent people have no reason to fear a stranger's sudden approach. "We have previously considered, and rejected, this ivory-towered analysis of the real world," Justice Stevens wrote.

The Scalia opinion in the case of California vs. Hodari D. (No. 89-1632) was supported by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Harry A. Blackmun, Anthony M. Kennedy, Sandra Day O'Connor, David H. Souter and Byron R. White.

Justice Thurgood Marshall supported the Stevens dissent.

The case

A routine police patrol in Oakland, Calif., three years ago set off a brief police chase that ended with yesterday's Supreme Court ruling.

Four or five youths were standing around a small car when they saw an unmarked police cruiser approaching. The officers had seen no crime but thought they might have come upon a drug-related incident.

The small car sped off, and the youths ran in varying directions. One of them, identified in the case as Hodari D., a minor, ran through an alley but was cut off by an officer chasing him on foot. Hodari threw away a small packet -- later found to contain "crack" cocaine.

The officer tackled the youth and found $130 in cash on him. The money, an electronic pager found on the youth and the "crack" were used as evidence against the youth, resulting in his commitment to a youth training camp. He contended that the head-on chase was a "seizure," thus barring the use of the evidence found at the scene. A Calfornia court's ruling in his favor was overturned yesterday.

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