Illinois v. Wardlow (2000)

Supreme Court of the United States

Illinois v. William aka Sam Wardlow 

Decided Jan. 12, 2000 – 528 U.S. 119


Chief Justice REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

Respondent Wardlow fled upon seeing police officers patrolling an area known for heavy narcotics trafficking. Two of the officers caught up with him, stopped him and conducted a protective patdown search for weapons. Discovering a .38-caliber handgun, the officers arrested Wardlow. We hold that the officers’ stop did not violate the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

On September 9, 1995, Officers Nolan and Harvey were working as uniformed officers in the special operations section of the Chicago Police Department. The officers were driving the last car of a four car caravan converging on an area known for heavy narcotics trafficking in order to investigate drug transactions. The officers were traveling together because they expected to find a crowd of people in the area, including lookouts and customers.

As the caravan passed 4035 West Van Buren, Officer Nolan observed respondent Wardlow standing next to the building holding an opaque bag. Respondent looked in the direction of the officers and fled. Nolan and Harvey turned their car southbound, watched him as he ran through the gangway and an alley, and eventually cornered him on the street. Nolan then exited his car and stopped respondent. He immediately conducted a protective patdown search for weapons because in his experience it was common for there to be weapons in the near vicinity of narcotics transactions. During the frisk, Officer Nolan squeezed the bag respondent was carrying and felt a heavy, hard object similar to the shape of a gun. The officer then opened the bag and discovered a .38-caliber handgun with five live rounds of ammunition. The officers arrested Wardlow.

The Illinois trial court denied respondent’s motion to suppress, finding the gun was recovered during a lawful stop and frisk. The Illinois Appellate Court reversed Wardlow’s conviction, concluding that the gun should have been suppressed. The Illinois Supreme Court held that the stop and subsequent arrest violated the Fourth Amendment. We granted certiorari and now reverse. 

This case, involving a brief encounter between a citizen and a police officer on a public street, is governed by the analysis we first applied in Terry. In Terry, we held that an officer may, consistent with the Fourth Amendment, conduct a brief, investigatory stop when the officer has a reasonable, articulable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot. While “reasonable suspicion” is a less demanding standard than probable cause and requires a showing considerably less than preponderance of the evidence, the Fourth Amendment requires at least a minimal level of objective justification for making the stop. The officer must be able to articulate more than an “inchoate and unparticularized suspicion or ‘hunch’” of criminal activity. 

Nolan and Harvey were among eight officers in a four-car caravan that was converging on an area known for heavy narcotics trafficking, and the officers anticipated encountering a large number of people in the area, including drug customers and individuals serving as lookouts. It was in this context that Officer Nolan decided to investigate Wardlow after observing him flee. An individual’s presence in an area of expected criminal activity, standing alone, is not enough to support a reasonable, particularized suspicion that the person is committing a crime. But officers are not required to ignore the relevant characteristics of a location in determining whether the circumstances are sufficiently suspicious to warrant further investigation. Accordingly, we have previously noted the fact that the stop occurred in a “high crime area” among the relevant contextual considerations in a Terry analysis.

In this case, moreover, it was not merely respondent’s presence in an area of heavy narcotics trafficking that aroused the officers’ suspicion, but his unprovoked flight upon noticing the police. Our cases have also recognized that nervous, evasive behavior is a pertinent factor in determining reasonable suspicion. Headlong flight—wherever it occurs—is the consummate act of evasion: It is not necessarily indicative of wrongdoing, but it is certainly suggestive of such. In reviewing the propriety of an officer’s conduct, courts do not have available empirical studies dealing with inferences drawn from suspicious behavior, and we cannot reasonably demand scientific certainty from judges or law enforcement officers where none exists. Thus, the determination of reasonable suspicion must be based on commonsense judgments and inferences about human behavior. We conclude Officer Nolan was justified in suspecting that Wardlow was involved in criminal activity, and, therefore, in investigating further.


Terry accepts the risk that officers may stop innocent people. Indeed, the Fourth Amendment accepts that risk in connection with more drastic police action; persons arrested and detained on probable cause to believe they have committed a crime may turn out to be innocent. The Terry stop is a far more minimal intrusion, simply allowing the officer to briefly investigate further. If the officer does not learn facts rising to the level of probable cause, the individual must be allowed to go on his way. But in this case the officers found respondent in possession of a handgun, and arrested him for violation of an Illinois firearms statute. No question of the propriety of the arrest itself is before us.

The judgment of the Supreme Court of Illinois is reversed, and the cause is remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.

Justice STEVENS, with whom Justice SOUTER, Justice GINSBURG, and Justice BREYER join, concurring in part and dissenting in part.

[The dissent agreed with the majority that flight from police could sometimes create cause for suspicion and thereby “by itself, be sufficient to justify a temporary investigative stop of the kind authorized by Terry.” It agreed too that the Court was correct in not “authorizing the temporary detention of anyone who flees at the mere sight of a police officer.” In other words, sometimes flight alone justifies a Terry stop, and sometimes it does not. “Given the diversity and frequency of possible motivations for flight, it would be profoundly unwise to endorse either per se rule.” The dissent differed from the majority in its discussion of why innocent persons might flee from officers:]

In addition to these concerns, a reasonable person may conclude that an officer’s sudden appearance indicates nearby criminal activity. And where there is criminal activity there is also a substantial element of danger–either from the criminal or from a confrontation between the criminal and the police. These considerations can lead to an innocent and understandable desire to quit the vicinity with all speed.

Among some citizens, particularly minorities and those residing in high crime areas, there is also the possibility that the fleeing person is entirely innocent, but, with or without justification, believes that contact with the police can itself be dangerous, apart from any criminal activity associated with the officer’s sudden presence. For such a person, unprovoked flight is neither “aberrant” nor “abnormal.” Moreover, these concerns and fears are known to the police officers themselves, and are validated by law enforcement investigations into their own practices. Accordingly, the evidence supporting the reasonableness of these beliefs is too pervasive to be dismissed as random or rare, and too persuasive to be disparaged as inconclusive or insufficient.


“Unprovoked flight,” in short, describes a category of activity too broad and varied to permit a per se reasonable inference regarding the motivation for the activity….


Nolan was part of an eight-officer, four-car caravan patrol team. The officers were headed for “one of the areas in the 11th District [of Chicago] that’s high [in] narcotics traffic.” The reason why four cars were in the caravan was that “[n]ormally in these different areas there’s an enormous amount of people, sometimes lookouts, customers.” Officer Nolan testified that he was in uniform on that day, but he did not recall whether he was driving a marked or an unmarked car. [emphasis added by editor]

[The dissent quoted from Alberty v. United States, 162 U.S. 499, 511 (1896), as follows:]

“[I]t is a matter of common knowledge that men who are entirely innocent do sometimes fly from the scene of a crime through fear of being apprehended as the guilty parties, or from an unwillingness to appear as witnesses. Nor is it true as an accepted axiom of criminal law that ‘the wicked flee when no man pursueth, but the righteous are as bold as a lion.’ Innocent men sometimes hesitate to confront a jury—not necessarily because they fear that the jury will not protect them, but because they do not wish their names to appear in connection with criminal acts, are humiliated at being obliged to incur the popular odium of an arrest and trial, or because they do not wish to be put to the annoyance or expense of defending themselves.”

[The dissent then concluded “that in this case the brief testimony of the officer who seized respondent does not justify the conclusion that he had reasonable suspicion to make the stop.” The dissent argued that the officer’s testimony was vague and could not even demonstrate that Wardlow’s “flight was related to his expectation of police focus on him.”]

Notes, Comments, and Questions 

The Court in Wardlow announced that “unprovoked flight” in a “high crime area”—particularly “an area of heavy narcotics trafficking”—justifies a Terry stop. It is not certain what other factors, when combined with flight, are sufficient to constitute reasonable suspicion. It seems likely, however, that once flight is part of the analysis, not much additional ground for suspicion is needed to give officers discretion to stop a suspect.

How can the officer say that Wardlow ran at the sight of police when the officer could not remember if whether the officers where in an unmarked car?  Might someone run when four cars together come up a street in a group?  Does the indicate the presence of police—or a gang?

What guidance does the Court give on what a “high-crime area” is? What comes to your mind as you think of high-crime areas? Would official statistics (for example, records of arrests organized by neighborhood) provide an accurate picture of which neighborhoods have the most crime? How do race and poverty play into our notions of high crime areas? Is a fraternity house (or a neighborhood of such houses, nicknamed “Greektown”) a high-crime area? Why or why not?

Consider a college student fleeing a police officer who arrives at a fraternity party in response to a noise complaint. May the officer chase the student down and conduct a Terry stop? Why or why not?

Now imagine that same college student is walking in a high-poverty, primarily minority neighborhood in the middle of an afternoon. He sees two police officers walking toward him, and he runs in the other direction. Does this conduct justify Terry stop? Why or why not?

In the next case, the Court found that the information provided by a tipster did not justify a Terry stop. 


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