High court to review police patrol powers

Chicago case involves stop of man who fled at sight of officers

May 04, 1999|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court, setting the stage for a review of police patrols in high-crime urban areas, agreed yesterday to rule on the officers' power to stop and question someone just because that person has fled when the police arrive.

The court has been interested in that issue for a decade and twice before had agreed to settle it. But both earlier cases ended without a ruling on how police may react to someone's decision to run away at the sight of officers.

Federal and state courts have been widely divided over the question -- a factor that appeared to have persuaded the justices to try again.

In the new case, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled last fall that it is unconstitutional for police to stop an individual for questioning and frisking if the only reason for doing so is that person's flight from a high-crime neighborhood as a police car drove up.

Officers must have some reasonable basis for believing that a person has committed, or is about to commit, a crime before they may pursue him or her for an investigation, the state court ruled.

"In Illinois, neither a person's mere presence in an area where drugs are sold nor sudden flight alone will justify a stop" by police, the state court said.

The case involves a Chicago man, Sam Wardlow, who was convicted of being a felon in possession of a gun. He was sentenced to two years in prison.

Two officers on drug patrol in a high-crime area of the city saw Wardlow standing in front of a building. He did not appear to be breaking any law. But when he saw the officers, he turned and ran.

The police caught Wardlow and found a gun in a white bag he had carried under his arm.

In taking the case to the Supreme Court, state officials said that such encounters occur countless times across the nation, and argued that police need to know what response they are constitutionally entitled to take.

A decision in the case will come sometime next year.

In another action, the court gave U.S. immigration officials broad power to deport illegal aliens who have used violence as a form of political protest in their home countries before coming to the United States.

If the immigration officials determine that the violence was a "serious crime," even if done for political reasons, they are free to deport the aliens, whether or not the aliens' home governments plan to prosecute them, the court declared in a unanimous ruling written by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy.

The ruling came in the case of a Guatemalan who, before entering the United States, had burned buses and assaulted passengers in protest over high bus fares in his country.

Yesterday's decision strictly curbed the power of U.S. courts to second-guess deportations in such cases.

The court, in another unanimous ruling, decided that Indian tribal courts are barred from handling lawsuits that claim injury or death from exposure to nuclear radiation.

All such cases must be decided in regular federal courts, the justices ruled.

Pub Date: 5/04/99

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