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Flight as Justification for Seizure: Supreme Court Rulings

NCJ Number
FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin Volume: 69 Issue: 6 Dated: June 2000 Pages: 28-32
Michael E. Brooks J.D.
Date Published
June 2000
5 pages
The United States Supreme Court’s decision in Illinois v. Wardlow in 2000 provides both guidance and additional questions for police officers seeking to understand what facts are sufficient to constitute the reasonable suspicion necessary to detain someone temporarily and whether an individual’s flight can justify pursuit and detention.
The case involved a suspected drug offender who fled when he noticed police officers. The officers who chased and caught him, conducted a frisk for weapons--experience had taught them that weapons were often present near narcotics transactions--and found a loaded handgun. The police arrested Wardlow for a weapons violation. Wardlow argued that his detention and the subsequent frisk were unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment. The trial court held that the officer’s actions were a lawful stop and frisk. Two Illinois appeals courts reversed. The United States Supreme Court reversed these decisions and held that unexplained flight upon noticing the police is a pertinent factor in determining whether reasonable suspicion exists. The Court’s decision suggests the need for police administrators to continue to evaluate their policies concerning what actions are appropriate when an individual flees upon the approach of a police officer. They must instruct officers to note all pertinent facts observed both before and during any chase. These facts are essential to support a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity necessary to justify a temporary investigative detention. Photographs and reference notes