Fleeing From Police Is Reasonable Grounds For Suspicion

5 November 1999

By Stentor Danielson

Are you afraid of the police? Do you run when you see them? Maybe you would if you were walking down Broad Street with an open can of Beast, or a stolen pedestrian sign. But under normal circumstances, I doubt you'd even think about avoiding an officer.

But that might soon change since the U.S. Supreme Court is currently hearing a case that could establish whether fleeing from law enforcement personnel is cause for suspicion.

The case involves William Wardlow, who fled from approaching police in Chicago. Officers pursued Wardlow and found him to be in possession of an illegal firearm. Illinois maintains that Wardlow's panic at the sight of the police is inherently suspicious and thus constitutes reasonable cause for the officers to stop and frisk him.

Wardlow's lawyers contend that there are legitimate reasons that one might try to avoid police. Therefore, they say, the officers' actions were "unreasonable" and consequently prohibited by the Fourth Amendment. A ruling is expected by next summer. Hopefully it will go in favor of the state of Illinois.

By backing the police, the court will affirm that innocent people have no need to avoid police officers. Therefore, anyone who does so probably has something to hide.

The defense's suggestion that normal people wouldn't want to be in the vicinity of police, and would take drastic measures to extricate themselves from the situation, doesn't make sense. Innocent people don't panic when they see police officers.

The purpose of having a police force is to defend those who abide by the law from those who don't. A police presence is something to be encouraged, not something to be avoided, especially in high-crime areas.

Even if an innocent person should happen -- or seem to -- flee and be stopped by officers, he would have nothing to worry about. The decision would allow only a few questions and a pat-down search. Any person who is not carrying evidence of wrongdoing (such as an illegal firearm or drugs) should happily comply with officers in order to allow both parties to be on their way.

I think a few searches of innocent people is a small price to pay for the apprehension of the criminals that the practice would undoubtedly catch. A guilty person is much more likely to feel threatened when seen by the police, and panic. An innocent person who doesn't want to get noticed would be more likely to retain his presence of mind and simply walk on by, or blend into the crowd. So most of those who flee the police are worth stopping.

This policy would allow fast action by police to catch criminals. Opponents insist that officers must have corroborating evidence to justify stopping a fleeing person. But in the time it takes for officers to debate whether the additional evidence that they may have will stand up in court, the suspect may easily have gotten away.

Allowing police to interpret flight as legally suspicious would enable police to react quickly. This may mean the difference between punishing a lawbreaker and letting him go free to continue breaking the law.

However, detractors of the policy do raise the important point of white police in minority neighborhoods. These officers have widely been accused of stereotyping minorities as inherently suspicious. It is possible that they may take a conviction of Wardlow as an invite to give minorities a hard time. Past incidents of police racism have undoubtedly made minorities justifiably wary of officers and they may run in order to avoid trouble based on their race, rather than any criminal behavior.

There is little doubt that this policy, like any other power given to police, has the potential to be abused. Some officers will jump at an excuse to give the people they are supposedly protecting a hard time. But we should punish those who misuse their authority, rather than letting them dictate our policy.

In order to keep this policy from spawning further abuses, police departments need to scrutinize their officers' actions. The court's decision should serve as an opportunity for departments to reexamine their policies of monitoring officers' responsibility. In order to be effective and avoid a de facto martial law, a law enforcement agency needs the trust of those it protects.

The key will be to establish strict guidelines as to what constitutes flight, what makes up a reasonable search of a person caught fleeing and how much evidence must be found in the search to justify continuing action. Such an explicit system is necessary to impress upon officers what their limits are, and also to give the department's guidelines for looking into possible abuses of the power.

For example, "flight" should be limited to situations wherein the suspect clearly panics and bolts. Simple avoidance is more prudence than guilt in areas where police-citizenry relations are tense.

Flight also implies that it was simply the police presence that prompted the person to run. If the officers give a person a hard time for no reason and then the person flees, it is a different story. The types of criminals that this policy would catch are the kind whose guilt or fear of being caught overrides their judgment.

Police should be careful as to what they do to a person who they stop. If flight alone prompted the incident, but a quick pat-down search reveals no obvious criminal evidence (an illegal weapon, a stash of drugs, etc.), the person should be free to go.

The decision should come down to an issue of trust. Allowing searches based on suspicious flight has the potential to stop and punish crime that normally slips through the cracks. But it also may lead to a misuse of police power. The justices must decide whether they trust our nation's police departments to implement the policy responsibly.

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