Illinois v. Wardlow

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Illinois v. Wardlow
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Argued November 2, 1999
Decided January 12, 2000
Full case name Illinois, Petitioner v. William aka Sam Wardlow
Citations 528 U.S. 119 (more)
Prior history 183 Ill. 2d 306, 701 N. E. 2d 484
The police had reasonable suspicion to justify the stop.
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority Rehnquist, joined by O'Connor, Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas
Dissent Stevens, joined by Souter, Ginsburg, Breyer
Laws applied
United States Constitution, Amendment IV

Illinois v. Wardlow, 528 U.S. 119 (2000), is a case decided before the United States Supreme Court involving U.S. criminal procedure regarding searches and seizures.


Officers patrolling an area of the West Side of Chicago, Illinois known for narcotics spotted William "Sam" Wardlow[1] fleeing the area holding a bag. Alert to the possibility of Wardlow carrying a weapon, the police patted Wardlow down upon catching him. The police discovered Wardlow was carrying a gun, and he was arrested. The facts are not disputed. Around 12:15 p.m. on September 9, 1995, Officer Timothy Nolan of the Chicago Police Department was in uniform and driving a police cruiser in the vicinity of 4035 Van Buren. Officer Nolan and his partner were in the last car of a four-car police "caravan" involving eight officers. The officers were assigned to investigate narcotics in the area. J.A. 3-7.

While driving, Officer Nolan noticed respondent, Sam Wardlow, standing in front of 4035 West Van Buren. According to Nolan, respondent was doing nothing illegal, nor acting suspiciously. Respondent looked in the officers' direction and then fled. The officers followed respondent in their cruiser and observed him run through a gangway and an alley. Respondent then ran right toward the cruiser and was detained. Officer Nolan frisked respondent. Inside a white opaque plastic bag carried by respondent, Nolan felt a hard object similar in shape to a revolver. Nolan opened the bag and discovered a loaded handgun. Respondent was then arrested. J.A. 4-6.

Respondent was charged with various weapon violations. The trial court denied respondent's suppression motion. Recognizing that an investigative stop requires specific and articulable facts of criminality, the trial court stated that "[t]he police in [respondent's] case had nothing." Nevertheless, the trial court noted that it "is common knowledge police do know of the area where drugs are being sold. They do have knowledge of general areas where contraband, including weapons, are being carried." Applying a totality of the circumstances test, the trial court concluded that respondent's flight justified a stop and frisk. J.A. 12-13. After a bench trial, respondent was convicted of unlawful use of a weapon by a felon.

The intermediate appellate court in Illinois reversed. The appellate court found "no support in the record" for the inference that respondent was in a high crime area. There was no evidence that the police were targeting the area where respondent was observed "because it was known to be a location where drugs were sold." The "officers were simply driving by, on their way to some unidentified location, when they noticed [respondent] standing at 4035 West Van Buren." The court explained that the record "was simply too vague" to support the judgment that respondent was in a place of high narcotics activity, or that his flight "was related to his expectation of police focus on him." Accordingly, the court concluded that respondent's flight, by itself, did not furnish reasonable suspicion to justify an investigatory stop. J.A. 27-28.

The Illinois Supreme Court affirmed. The court first set aside the appellate court's determination that the record did not support the inference that respondent was observed in a high-crime area. According to the court, Officer Nolan's testimony "was sufficient to establish that the incident occurred in a high-crime area." Thus, the sole issue before it was whether respondent's "flight upon the approach of a police vehicle patrolling a high-crime area is sufficient to justify an investigative stop." J.A. 18.

The court concluded that flight alone, even in a high-crime neighborhood, did not provide reasonable suspicion of criminality. Noting this Court's precedents establishing a person's right to avoid police contact, the court adopted the reasoning of other lower courts which had decided that flight from the police was a manner of exercising one's right to avoid a police encounter. J.A. 19. The court also found that the record here did not contain corroborating facts to justify detaining respondent in light of his flight. The police "were not responding to any call or report of suspicious activity in the area." Furthermore, respondent exhibited "no outward indication of involvement in illicit activity prior to the approach" of the police. Because the record revealed "the absence of circumstances corroborating the conclusion that [respondent] was involved in criminal activity, Officer Nolan's testimony reveals nothing more than a hunch." Consequently, the court ruled that the stop and frisk of respondent was unconstitutional. J.A. 22-23.2

In this Court, petitioner argues that unprovoked flight from the police alone justifies an investigative stop. In the alternative, petitioner submits that, even if unprovoked flight by itself does not justify a stop, flight in a high-crime area does justify a detention. Pet. Br. 5.


Wardlow moved to suppress the evidence regarding the gun claiming the stop was unreasonable and that there are many legitimate reasons for fleeing from the sight of police. An Illinois trial court denied his motion, and he was convicted. The Illinois Appellate Court reversed, finding that the officers did not have the requisite reasonable suspicion for making a stop. The Illinois Supreme Court agreed with that decision. The US Supreme Court reversed both the Appellate and Illinois Supreme Court decisions, with the Supreme Court stating that fleeing in a high crime area at the sight of police is enough to create reasonable suspicion. Indicating that reasonable suspicion rest heavily on normal human behavior, stating that flight at the mere sight of police is a sign that there exists reasonable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot.


Whether an individual who suddenly and without provocation flees from identifiable police officers patrolling a high crime area creates reasonable suspicion under the Fourth Amendment for the police to stop him.

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?


In an opinion delivered by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, the Supreme Court held in a 5 to 4 decision that the police had reasonable suspicion to justify the stop.


Justice John Paul Stevens argued in dissent that the government did not articulate enough facts to establish reasonable suspicion and that there were not enough facts in the record to corroborate the government's claim.

See also[edit]


Further reading[edit]

  • Johnson-Liu, M. E. (1999). "Running from the Law in the Wrong Part of Town: Illinois v. Wardlow". American Journal of Criminal Law 27: 129. ISSN 0092-2315. 
  • Wang, Andrea (2001). "Illinois v. Wardlow and the Crisis of Legitimacy: An Argument for a ‘Real Cost’ Balancing Test". Law & Inequality 19: 1. ISSN 0737-089X. 

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