Illinois v. Wardlow

528 U.S. 119 (2000)

U.S. Supreme Court

January 12, 2000

 

Headlong flight wherever it occurs is the consummate act of evasion: it is not necessarily indicative of wrongdoing, but it is certainly suggestive of such. Id at 124

On Saturday September 9, 1995 at approximately 12:15 p.m. Chicago Police Officer Timothy Nolan and his partner, Officer Harvey, were assigned to the Special Operations section of the Chicago Police Department. On this date, the officers were assigned to the 11th District of Chicago which is a high crime area which is known for narcotics transactions.  Officers Nolan and Harvey were among eight officers in four cars travelling eastbound on West Van Buren Street with the purpose of investigating narcotics sales in that area. Officer Nolan stated that he was working in uniform but did not recall whether the police car he drove, the last in the “caravan,” was marked or unmarked.

Officer Nolan observed Mr. Sam Wardlow standing in front of 4035 West Van Buren. Mr. Wardlow, who did not appear to be violating any laws, looked in the officers’ direction, had the deer-in-the-headlights look and fled on foot carrying a bag. Officer Nolan turned his vehicle southbound toward Congress Avenue, continuing to observe defendant, who ran southbound through a gangway and then through an alley. Nolan stated that defendant, who was carrying a white opaque bag under his arm, was cornered in the vicinity of 4036 West Congress when he “ran right towards us.”

Officer Nolan exited his car, stopped Mr. Wardlow and conducted a protective pat-down search of Mr. Wardlow. Nolan testified that he could not see inside the bag Mr. Wardlow was carrying so he “squeezed” the bag and felt a very heavy, hard object “that had a similar shape to a revolver or a gun.” Believing the object to be a weapon, Officer Nolan opened the bag and found a .38-caliber handgun containing five live rounds of ammunition.  Officer Nolan then placed Mr. Wardlow under arrest as a felon in possession of a firearm.

On September 9, 1995 Sam Wardlow’s headlong flight stopped on the front steps of 4036 West Congress Street, Chicago, Illinois but soon his firearm, conviction and appeal would take him all the way to Washington D.C.   Mr. Wardlow could not outrun Officer Nolan or the U.S. Supreme Court!

Mr. Wardlow’s Motion to Suppress in the trial court was denied, he was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison.  The Illinois appellate court reversed the conviction, holding that Officer Nolan and Officer Harvey did not have Reasonable Suspicion to stop Mr. Wardlow.  The Illinois Supreme Court upheld the appellate court, holding that Officer Nolan did not have Reasonable Suspicion.  The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on November 2, 1999 and issued their decision on January 12, 2000, holding “We conclude Officer Nolan was justified in suspecting that Wardlow was involved in criminal activity, and, therefore, in investigating further.” Id at 125.

Lessons Learned

  1. The U.S. Supreme Court did NOT adopt a ‘per se’ rule that every time someone runs from law enforcement, that in and of itself is enough Reasonable Suspicion to chase and stop the individual. The court did give strong weight to:

The area was a high crime area.

This began with a narcotic sweep and the officers expected to discover lookouts and drug salesmen.

Sam Wardlow had headlong flight – – flight that was immediate at the sight of law enforcement, intentional and purposefully evasive.

Hence, when a suspect runs from law enforcement that flight, in and of itself does not create Reasonable Suspicion.  There must be other factors that contribute to establishing Reasonable Suspicion in addition to flight.

  1. The U.S. Supreme Court did well to evaluate Mr. Wardlow’s flight after seeing the officers in a narcotics investigation. “Nolan and Harvey were among eight officers in a four car caravan that was converging on an area known for heavy narcotics trafficking, and the officers anticipated encountering a large number of people in the area, including drug customers and individuals serving as lookouts. It was in this context that Officer Nolan decided to investigate Wardlow after observing him flee … But officers are not required to ignore the relevant characteristics of a location in determining whether the circumstances are sufficiently suspicious to warrant further investigation … In this case, moreover, it was not merely respondent’s presence in an area of heavy narcotics trafficking that aroused the officers’ suspicion but his unprovoked flight upon noticing the police. Our cases have also recognized that nervous, evasive behavior is a pertinent factor in determining reasonable suspicion … Headlong flight — wherever it occurs — is the consummate act of evasion: it is not necessarily indicative of wrongdoing, but it is certainly suggestive of such.” Id at 124.
  1. The court opined on the ‘high crime area’ clearly stating that presence in a high crime area is not in and of itself Reasonable Suspicion.  An individual’s presence in an area of expected criminal activity, standing alone, is not enough to support a reasonable, particularized suspicion that the person is committing a crime.” Id at 125.
  1. In the Wardlow case Mr. Wardlow was in a high crime area, observed law enforcement coming down the street in force, had the deer-in-the-headlights look and began headlong flight away from law enforcement. Those factors combined created enough Reasonable Suspicion for law enforcement to initiate a foot pursuit, detain and pat Mr. Wardlow down for weapons.  Wardlow’s actions created what I call a Fourth Amendment Symphony, i.e. simply using all of the instruments available to make beautiful music that resulted in established case law to assist law enforcement officers from coast to coast.
  1. During oral arguments there was robust discussion over the fact that when Mr. Wardlow ran and the officer chased him based on Reasonable Suspicion that Criminal Activity was Afoot, the officers could not identify what specific crime they suspected Mr. Wardlow. The argument constantly referred back to Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968), indicating that Det. Marty McFadden had suspected John Terry, Richard Chilton and Carl Katz of casing a store for a robbery.  In the Wardlow case the officers could not identify the crime from which Mr. Wardlow was fleeing.  Ultimately the court held “We conclude Officer Nolan was justified in suspecting that Wardlow was involved in criminal activity, and, therefore, in investigating further.” Id at 125.  The specific crime did not have to be identified.

Sam ran like a felon in possession of a firearm because he WAS a felon in possession of a firearm.

Information from this article was obtained from Illinois v. Wardlow, 528 U.S. 119 (2000),  Oral Arguments Illinois v. Wardlow, 528 U.S. 119 (2000) and Illinois v. Wardlow, 183 Ill. 2d 306 (1998).

Does your agency train on Investigative Detention?

Don’t fail your training – don’t let your training fail you!

Be safe, smart and objectively reasonable!

Robert H. Meader Esq.