Illinois v. Wardlow

LOCATION: 4035 West Van Buren St

DOCKET NO.: 98-1036
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: Supreme Court of Illinois

CITATION: 528 US 119 (2000)
ARGUED: Nov 02, 1999
DECIDED: Jan 12, 2000

James B. Koch - Argued the cause for the respondent
Malcolm L. Stewart - Argued the cause for the United States, as amicus curiae, by special leave of court
Richard A. Devine - Argued the cause for the petitioner

Facts of the case

Sam Wardlow, who was holding an opaque bag, inexplicably fled an area of Chicago known for heavy narcotics trafficking after noticing police officers in the area. When officers caught up with him on the street, one stopped him and conducted a protective pat-down search for weapons because in his experience there were usually weapons in the vicinity of narcotics transactions. The officers arrested Wardlow after discovering that he was carrying handgun. In a trial motion to suppress the gun, Wardlow claimed that in order to stop an individual, short of actually arresting the person, police first had to point to "specific reasonable inferences" why the stop was necessary. The Illinois trial court denied the motion, finding that the gun was recovered during a lawful stop and frisk. Wardlow was convicted of unlawful use of a weapon by a felon. In reversing, the Illinois Appellate Court found that the officer did not have reasonable suspicion to make the stop. The Illinois Supreme Court affirmed, determining that sudden flight in a high crime area does not create a reasonable suspicion justifying a stop because flight may simply be an exercise of the right to "go on one's way."


Is a person's sudden and unprovoked flight from identifiable police officers, patrolling a high crime area, sufficiently suspicious to justify the officers' stop of that person?

Media for Illinois v. Wardlow

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 02, 1999 in Illinois v. Wardlow

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument now in No. 98-1036, Illinois v. William Wardlow.

Mr. Devine.

Richard A. Devine:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

On September 9th, 1995, when William Wardlow looked at Officer Nolan and took flight, the officer had reason to believe that there was a problem.

He pursued and stopped Wardlow to investigate and discovered a loaded gun in his possession.

The three key factors in this brief statement are flight from a clearly identified police officer without provocation.

These factors provided reasonable suspicion supporting a Terry stop.

At the core of this case...

Anthony M. Kennedy:

When you said he had reasonable cause to believe there was a problem, you mean that he had reason to believe that crime was afoot.

Is that the test?

Richard A. Devine:

Yes, Your Honor.

The reasonable police officer had, under these circumstances, reasonable suspicion to believe that crime was afoot.

Stephen G. Breyer:

What crime?

Richard A. Devine:

Throughout the history of this country, flight has been considered by the courts and by commentators as inherently suspicious.

Stephen G. Breyer:

Of what?

Richard A. Devine:

It is not... it is not required, Your Honor, that the officer have reasonable suspicion of a particular crime.

This was commented on in Anderson and in LaFave.

If the officer has reasonable suspicion to believe that criminal activity may be afoot, as this Court has noted, there may be innocent behavior, but the officer, the reasonable officer, can stop briefly to determine whether his suspicions are justified or not.

Stephen G. Breyer:

Does he have to have some rough idea of what kind of crime?

I mean, it wasn't money laundering I take it.

Richard A. Devine:

No, Your Honor.


William H. Rehnquist:

What was it?

Richard A. Devine:

it is our submission that if the officer has reasonable suspicion that there may be some type of criminal activity... and flight has historically been related to criminal activity, as Mr. Burrill noted in his commentary back in the 1860's, that flight for a burglar, an arsonist, a robber is common, and that in fact if someone committed one of these acts, that it is so natural to flee that if an individual did not, he would be considered mentally deficient.

Antonin Scalia:

I suppose if a policeman sees somebody with a smoking rifle, he wouldn't exactly know what precise crime was... was probable or possible either.

The man might have killed somebody or he might have shot a bald eagle.

You really wouldn't know which, would you?

Richard A. Devine:

You would not, Your Honor.

In addition, going back to Terry, the case which is the seminal case on this issue, the activity that the officer noted was as consistent with innocent behavior as with what the officer suspected, namely that the individuals walking around were casing the joint preparing to rob a department store.

William H. Rehnquist: