Illinois v. Wardlow

Following is the case brief for Illinois v. Wardlow, 528 U.S. 119 (2000)

Case Summary of Illinois v. Wardlow:

  • Respondent, walking in a high-crime area, fled upon seeing a caravan of Chicago police vehicles.
  • Two Chicago police officers caught up with respondent and conducted a Terry stop and frisk.  They discovered that Wardlow had a gun.
  • The trial court denied Wardlow’s motion to dismiss the gun prior to his trial.
  • The Illinois appellate court, however, reversed the ruling; and the Illinois Supreme Court affirmed that the gun should have been suppressed.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Illinois Supreme Court.  It held that even though unprovoked flight from police is not always an indication of criminal activity, the police were justified in conducting the stop based on the circumstances in the case.

Illinois v. Wardlow Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

Chicago police officers were patrolling the streets in a high-crime area, known for heavy drug trafficking.  Respondent Wardlow fled upon seeing the caravan of officers in the area.  Two officers caught up with Wardlow and conducted a protective frisk for weapons.  The officers discovered a handgun on Wardlow and arrested him.  Wardlow was ultimately convicted of a felony weapons offense.

Procedural History:

  • The Illinois trial court denied Wardlow’s motion to suppress the gun before trial, holding that the gun was recovered subsequent to a legitimate Terry stop.
  • The Illinois Appellate Court reversed, finding that the officers did not have reasonable suspicion to stop Wardlow.
  • The Illinois Supreme Court affirmed the Appellate Court, holding that sudden flight in a high-crime area is not enough to create reasonable suspicion for a Terry stop because flight may be just an exercise of the right to “go on one’s way.”
  • The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Issue and Holding:

Is spontaneous flight from police in a high-crime area enough to create reasonable suspicion for a Terry stop under the Fourth Amendment?  Yes.

Judgment:

The decision of the Illinois Supreme Court is reversed.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

It is not a violation of the Fourth Amendment to conduct a protective stop and frisk, a Terry stop, when a person flees from police in a high-crime area.

Reasoning:

Reasonable suspicion to justify a stop, under Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968), means that an officer has reasonable, articulable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot.  A person’s presence in a high-crime area is not sufficient to provide officers with the reasonable suspicion to conduct a Terry stop.  However, in this case, Wardlow’s unprovoked flight in the high-crime area was the basis for the suspicion.

There is no bright-line rule that unprovoked flight is always indicative of criminal activity.  Rather, reasonable suspicion is based on commonsense judgments and inferences about human behavior.  Also, Terry recognizes the risk that police may sometimes stop innocent people.  In this case, the officers were justified in the brief stop of Wardlow based on his conduct.  Had they not found anything on Wardlow’s person, he would have been able to go on his way.  Yet, they found the weapon on Wardlow.

Concurring and Dissenting Opinions:

Dissenting Opinion (Stevens): 

The Court was correct to reject the State’s suggested per se rule that unprovoked flight from police always justifies a Terry stop, and to reject Wardlow’s suggested per se rule that such flight never justifies a stop.  Yet, the facts on the record show that the officer in this case did not have the requisite reasonable suspicion to stop Wardlow.

Significance:

Illinois v. Wardlow is significant because it emphasizes the fact-sensitive, totality-of-the-circumstances analysis involved in Fourth Amendment Terry stop cases.  As Justice Stevens’ dissent notes, the Court rejected bright-line rules regarding the significance of unprovoked flight from police.

Student Resources:

Read the Full Court Opinion

Listen to the Oral Arguments