You Can Run, But You Can't Hide

A recent Supreme Court decision encourages you to stand your ground if you're stopped by police.

While patrolling a "high-crime" district in Chicago, two police officers saw a man take off running when he spotted their patrol car. The police chased and caught him, patted him down and found an illegal weapon. At his trial, the man -- Wardlow by name -- asked the court to keep the weapon out of evidence, arguing that the chase and pat down were illegal. Wardlow argued that the police had no constitutional basis to believe that he might be engaged in criminal activity. The trial court refused Wardlow's request, and the case ultimately reached the United States Supreme Court.

On January 12, 2000, the Court ruled that the police acted constitutionally and that the trial court was correct in allowing the weapon into evidence. (Illinois v. Wardlow)

What does the Wardlow case teach us? Basically, it confirms what most of us already suspect -- when it comes to the police you can run, but you can't hide. But if this rule is so simple, why did it take a U.S. Supreme Court case to set us right? Let's take a closer look at the law of search and seizure, and why this case makes an important contribution to it.

The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution requires that to make a valid search, the police must first have probable cause to believe that contraband or other evidence of a crime will be uncovered. Probable cause has no fixed definition. In essence, it means that there is adequate objective information to form a belief that it is more likely than not that a crime has occurred or is occurring and that the suspect is involved. The police are supposed to obtain a search warrant -- written permission from a judge -- before making a search. However, there are exceptions, such as when circumstances don't allow adequate time to get a warrant.

In the Wardlow case, there was no search in the classic sense. Rather, the officers conducted what's known as a "stop and frisk." In a case decided over 30 years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that the police may:
  • stop a person in a public place if they have a "reasonable suspicion that the person is involved in criminal activity," and
  • frisk the person (pat his or her outer clothing for weapons) for self-defense purposes if they are concerned that the person might be armed.
If the police discover evidence of a crime in the course of conducting the frisk, that evidence can be used in a criminal trial only if the police can demonstrate "reasonable suspicion" for the initial stop. But what is reasonable suspicion? As with probable cause, the definition varies from case to case. Reasonable suspicion requires less certainty than probable cause but more than a mere hunch. All we really know for sure is that the police must base their suspicion on facts that can be articulated and not on mere intuition. In Wardlow, the articulated facts were:
  • Wardlow was in a "high narcotics traffic" area, and
  • Wardlow ran when he saw the police.

These facts, said the Court, were enough to justify the stop (actually, the chase) under the reasonable suspicion standard, so the frisk was therefore legal.

Suppose Wardlow had stood his ground. Even though it was a high crime area, previous cases have held that the police cannot use that one fact to justify a stop and frisk. It was only because Wardlow took flight that the police succeeded in proving reasonable suspicion.

Copyright 2004 Nolo