Tuesday, March 28, 2000

US Supreme Court Florida v. JL 98-1993

Decision here.

   Police received an anonymous tip that a black male standing at a particular bus stop wearing plaid shirt was carrying a gun.  J.L. was a black male standing at that bus stop while wearing a plaid shirt, and there were two other people with him (only J.L. matched the suspect description, though).  Nothing else was known about the reporting party.

   Based on the anonymous tip, officers searched J.L. and recovered a handgun.  They also searched the other two guys, apparently because it was physically possible to do so.  J.L. was subsequently charged with CCW and with possessing a handgun whilst under 18.  He moved to suppress the gun as the fruit of an unreasonable search, and this case made it all the way up to the Supreme Court.

   The Court held that in order to establish reasonable suspicion, an anonymous tip must have sufficient indicia of reliability.  The only such indication put forth in this decision is "the correct forecast of the subject's not easily predicted movements."  The decision discussed another case where an RP predicted that a woman would leave a particular place in a particular kind of car and check into a particular hotel, and that she would have drugs.  That case had been deemed by the court to just barely satisfy reasonable suspicion.

   By contrast, the court held that the tip in J.L.'s case was not reliable enough to establish reasonable suspicion.  The court recognized that the RP specifically described J.L., but held that simply providing enough information to identify a suspect doesn't make a tip reliable.

   The prosecution had argued for a firearms exception that would make stops based on anonymous tips regarding guns reasonable per se.  The court didn't like the slippery slope something like that would create, and talked about how if they were to humor that then eventually the exception would swallow the rule (because other kinds of criminals are known to carry guns, so anonymous tips not involving firearms could theoretically be treated like anonymous tips involving firearms...).  So the Supreme Court specifically did not create a rule that would allow us to stop people based on anonymous tips regarding firearms.

   The court did note that if the circumstances were different, such as if a case were to involve a suspect carrying a bomb, or if a case involved a place where the expectation of privacy is diminished (like an airport or school), then maybe it would be possible to justify a search using information that would otherwise be insufficient.  But there was nothing like that here, so the evidence in J.L.'s case was suppressed.

Wednesday, January 12, 2000

US Supreme Court Illinois v. Wardlow 98-1036

Decision here.

   This decision is an easy read.  It's short enough that you might want to skip my summary and just read the decision. 

   Uniformed officers investigating narcotic transactions converged on an area where they expected to find drug dealers, a large crowd of customers, and lookouts (so it was a nice neighborhood).  Wardlow was sitting outside of a building nearby holding an opaque bag, and when he saw the officers he suddenly took off running.  The last car in the officers' caravan followed him, caught up to him shortly afterwards, and the officers detained him for further investigation.  Because illegal drugs and weapons go hand in hand, one of the officers searched Wardlow for weapons.  He found a loaded gun, and Wardlow was eventually convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm.

   Wardlow appealed, arguing that the police had no reason to stop him.  The argument goes that simply being in a high crime area is not a reason to stop someone, and that Wardlow's sudden, unprovoked, headlong flight from officers was essentially his way of exercising his right to go about his business and decline to speak to officers who he was under no obligation to speak to.  And the Chicago Supreme Court agreed with him.

   This appeal made its way to the US Supreme Court, which held that Wardlow's detention was valid.  The court recognized that simply being in a high crime area does not constitute reasonable suspicion, and neither does declining to speak with the police.  But being in a high-crime area (particularly under these circumstances, where the officers arrived in force because they expected a lot of crime to be going on right now) is a factor in building reasonable suspicion.  So is nervous, evasive behavior -and headlong flight is sort of the O.G. of nervous, evasive behavior.  Running away isn't "going about your business," it's the exact opposite: it's dropping whatever you're doing in an attempt to get away from the police.

   Still, none of this is criminal.  It's not a crime to be present in a bad neighborhood, and it's not a crime to run away from the police.  There are perfectly legitimate explanations for these things.  But the Fourth Amendment accepts that the police will sometimes stop or even arrest innocent people.  A stop only needs to be justified by reasonable suspicion, not by actual guilt.  If additional information isn't discovered to justify arresting the suspect or prolonging the stop, then the suspect has to be released, but in this case the officers found a reason to arrest Wardlow right after they stopped him.  His conviction was upheld.