Supreme Court Watch: Courts and Cops
[Sorry, the video for this story has expired, but you can still read the transcript below. ]
RAY SUAREZ: The constitutional right protecting American citizens from unreasonable search and seizures, the Fourth Amendment, is at the core of today’s case from Illinois. Simply put, can police detain an individual and search him solely because he ran away from them? For more on the hearing, we turn to NewsHour regular Jan Crawford Greenburg, national legal affairs correspondent for the “Chicago Tribune.” Well, let’s start with the arrest that leads to this case. One day on the west side of Chicago.
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: That’s right. It was a sunny Saturday afternoon, and William Wardlow was standing in front of a building on Chicago’s west side when several police cars approached. He saw them, and he had one reaction. He ran. He ran down a gangway and through an alley, and two of the officers in one car — who hadn’t really noticed anything suspicious about Wardlow before — saw him run and followed him. They stopped him and patted him down. And when they did that, they noticed he was carrying a gun. Wardlow ultimately was convicted for illegally carrying a weapon and on appeal, he argued that the search was illegal because it violated his constitutional right under the Fourth Amendment to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.
RAY SUAREZ: The precedent in this case is, I guess, about 30 years old — the idea that there has to be reasonable suspicion before the police can make a warrantless search. Does this have a chance of overturning or just refining that precedent?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, it would refine it. In general, you know, police can’t stop and search someone unless they have probable cause to believe the person has committed a crime. But in that 1968 case, which is called Terry Versus Ohio, the Supreme Court said that because of the great interest in helping prevent crime, some stops may be justified. So therefore, if a police officer has reasonable suspicion to think that someone has committed a crime or is about to commit a crime, as Justice Kennedy said today, criminal activity is afoot, they can briefly stop and briefly question that person. And for their own safety, they can pat them down. Now, that’s the extent of the stop. They can’t, you know, search any further than that. It’s really just considered a brief stop and pat-down.
RAY SUAREZ: Was it argued today in the court that the very act of running away was sufficient to create this reasonable suspicion and thus meet the standard?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Yeah, that’s right. Generally, the court has required that police officers, before they would stop and frisk somebody, look at all the circumstances. And they’ve been very reluctant to say, yes, this specific behavior would justify a police officer stopping and patting somebody down, you know, would give police officer the reasonable suspicion that was necessary. But today, the Cook County state’s attorney, Richard Devine, asked the court to issue a very specific and clear rule. If someone runs away from the police, then… and the police officer has identified himself and he has not provoked any kind of encounter, in that situation, police officers should always be able to run after the person, stop them, detain them, pat them down, and then ask them some questions to find out, you know, what’s going on.
RAY SUAREZ: During today’s oral argument, was there an attempt made to demonstrate that there might be a perfectly innocent of legitimate reason for running away?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Yeah. That, to me, is one of the most fascinating things about this case. It involves very, you know, difficult legal questions. But it turns, I think, a lot on how people perceive the police and how sympathetic someone might be to someone’s differing perceptions of the officers. And that’s what the Justices spent the very first part of the argument on. And really, based on their questions, you could tell that how they viewed that, why would someone run from the police in the first place, went a long way to determining how they might decide the case in the end. The more liberal justices, Justice David Souter, Stephen Breyer, came up with a lot of reasons why someone might run from a police officer. Maybe they’re afraid of the police. Maybe there’s a racial element involved, as Justice Breyer suggested. Justice Souter said, you know, people might see a rapidly developing politician station. Bullets may be flying. They want to get out of there; they’re going run. The conservative Justices on the other hand, followed more what the state’s attorney in Cook County argued. Why would you run from police if you’re innocent? Certainly, as Justice Scalia said, can’t imagine people would run away when they see a rapidly developing situation. In fact, police have to push people out of the way because everybody is trying to crowd around and see what’s going on. So they didn’t buy the argument that there is a lot of other reasons that it could explain why someone would run away. They recognized and Justice Scalia recognized that sure, this might sweep in some innocent behavior, innocent people, but the overall compelling need for this was greater than that.
RAY SUAREZ: There have been a lot of cases like this in the last couple of years — ones that sort of reexamine police powers, the extent of a reasonable search. There was that firestorm about that drug case in New York that was decided by a federal judge.
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Right. And these are very… I mean, I think they’re very important issues. They are issues that everyone can relate to. They go to the heart of how much power we want police officers to have — what kind of balancing decisions we’re going to have, police power on the one hand versus people being able to walk away from police — be free from police intrusion, because the Supreme Court has never questioned the basic foundation that you have a right not to talk to police if the officer doesn’t, you know, suspect you of doing anything wrong. You can just walk away. And the lawyer for William Wardlow today said, you know, this is crazy. We’re going to have a situation where you can walk away from police, you don’t have to cooperate. But if you run away, that’s going to justify police officers coming after you and stopping you.
RAY SUAREZ: So when can people pick up the paper and see a decision in this case?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, I think this was a pretty controversial one. So, it may be a few weeks or months. But we’ll have to the end of June, so stay tuned on this one.
RAY SUAREZ: Jan Crawford Greenburg, thanks for coming by.