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John Whitehead's Commentary

The Supreme Court Tampers With the Fourth Amendment and Sanctions a Police State in the Inner City

John Whitehead
Recently, the Supreme Court handed down a decision that threatens to create a police state in urban areas around this country. In a narrow 5-4 decision, the Court found that police officers were justified in stopping a man who ran from them in a high-crime area, even though they had no reason to suspect him of any criminal activity.

In 1995, fate put its finger on Sam Wardlow as he walked down West Van Buren Street on the South side of Chicago. It seemed like just another September day in this high-crime, drug-ridden district of the city until Wardlow noticed two police officers slowly driving by. When he spied the cops, Wardlow took off, running down a side street.

Their curiosity aroused, the officers gave chase in their patrol car, eventually cornering their new suspect. One of the officers exited the car and conducted a "protective pat-down" search. The policeman discovered a .38 caliber handgun and arrested Wardlow for unlawful use of a weapon by a felon.

At trial, Wardlow's attorney argued that the evidence of the gun should be suppressed because it was discovered during an illegal search in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The crux of this argument was that the officers did not have a reasonable suspicion sufficient to justify stopping Wardlow.

In other words, the fact that Wardlow ran from police officers by itself did not give reason for them to stop him. After all, citizens of this country have a right to walk, skip or get in a car and drive off if they don't want to talk to the police. Otherwise, we simply exist at the behest of the police.

The trial court agreed with Wardlow's argument, as did the Illinois Supreme Court. The case then went to the U.S. Supreme Court. In a 5-4 decision, the Court reversed the earlier rulings, finding that the police officers acted properly in stopping Wardlow.

Apparently, an important factor in the court's decision was the fact that the stop took place in a high-crime area. Writing for the majority (which included fellow conservative justices O'Connor,Scalia, Thomas and Kennedy), Chief Justice Rehnquist said, "[T]he fact that the stop occurred in a 'high crime area' [is] among the relevant contextual considerations ..." Taken together, the headlong flight and the high crime area were sufficient to justify stopping Wardlow, at least according to the five-member majority.

The paradox of this ruling is that even innocent persons are more likely to run from officers in high crime areas than, say, gated suburbs. Individuals who talk to the police in urban areas can become victims of suspicion from their neighbors, which could put their lives in danger.

In addition, as Justice Stevens acknowledges in his concurring opinion, minorities in inner-city neighborhoods are deeply distrustful of police officers because they believe them to be abusive.

One study cited in Stevens' opinion found that 43 percent of African-Americans consider police brutality and harassment a problem in their neighborhoods. Another noted the concern among black youth about being picked up by drug task forces, even if they are innocent.

For now then, using the Supreme Court's reasoning, a white suburban kid may run from police officers with impunity. His black inner-city counterpart, however, could be chased down by those same officers and frisked.

All of these reasons are sufficient to justify Sam Wardlow's flight. And they're certainly serious enough to call into question the Supreme Court's somewhat cavalier approach to the issue.

Our forefathers feared the unfettered power of law enforcement authorities. That's why they enacted the Fourth Amendment guaranteeing the "right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures." And this freedom should not be tampered with.

As Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas once warned, "[I]f the individual is no longer to be sovereign, if the police can pick him up whenever they do not like the cut of his jib, if they can 'seize' and 'search' him in their discretion, we enter a new regime. The decision to enter it should be made only after a full debate by the people of this country."

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Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. His new book Battlefield America: The War on the American People  (SelectBooks, 2015) is available online at Whitehead can be contacted at

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