Justices back police in stops, searches

Individuals who flee at sight of officers may be detained

January 13, 2000|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Someone who runs when police arrive in a high-crime neighborhood may be stopped for questioning and a quick search if the person flees in a "nervous, evasive" way, the Supreme Court ruled yesterday.

The justices decided unanimously that fleeing would not by itself be enough to justify a police stop. Nor would the fact that the area was known for frequent criminal activity.

But when all the circumstances are taken into account, the court indicated, police may be justified in concluding that the person's actions in leaving a high-crime locale are enough to lead them to investigate further.

The decision settled the constitutional rules for a type of encounter that police organizations say occurs countless times every day. The key to the constitutionality of police stops of people who flee, the court said, is "common sense judgments and inferences about human behavior."

The National Association of Police Organizations praised the ruling, saying that "effective law enforcement requires no less" than the authority of police to stop, question and search for weapons those "who run away once they see a police officer."

The American Civil Liberties Union denounced the decision, saying the court had "failed to realistically evaluate the host of complex factors -- including racial discrimination -- which would lead an individual to avoid contact with the police."

The court, by leaving the legality of any given pursuit vague, seemed to hand over to lower courts the authority to determine, case by case, when police may constitutionally stop a fleeing individual.

The court conceded that its decision might mean that, in some cases, "officers may stop innocent people." But it said the Constitution accepts the risk that innocent people may be detained briefly if an officer thinks their attempts to leave were suspicious.

Four of the nine justices filed a separate opinion, apparently in an effort to encourage lower courts not to interpret the main opinion -- written by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist -- as a sweeping endorsement of police power to go after anyone who runs when police arrive.

Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for those four, said the ruling does not take away the right to avoid contact with police for individuals -- particularly racial minorities -- who fear the police because of race-based actions by officers.

Those four also dissented when the court applied its ruling to the specific facts of an Illinois case. The majority declared that the facts did support the stop the officers made -- which led to the arrest and conviction of a Chicago man for possessing a gun illegally. The dissenters said the circumstances did not provide enough evidence to support the stop made in the case.

State courts had reached conflicting rulings on whether police may pursue someone solely because he or she ran upon seeing police.

Rehnquist, though, used the court's main opinion to stress that police may react if they see someone fleeing in a "nervous, evasive" way, because that kind of flight is "certainly suggestive" of wrongdoing. Thus, the chief justice said, a nervous departure "is a pertinent factor" the officers may take into account.

Rehnquist's opinion was supported by Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

Stevens, writing for the dissenters, accepted the court's constitutional interpretation. But Stevens found that the facts in the Illinois case did not justify police stopping the Chicago man, William Wardlow. When a police caravan drove into a neighborhood the officers regarded as a frequent site of drug crimes, Wardlow ran.

In a second criminal law ruling yesterday, the court ruled unanimously that the Constitution does not give an individual convicted of a crime the right to act as his or her own lawyer once the case is appealed to higher courts.

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