How the Illinois v. Wardlow Case Affects Policing

What Role Did This Supreme Court Case Play in Freddie Gray's Killing?

Chicago police officers
Two Chicago police officers close off a street in preparation of a protest. Scott L./

Illinois v. Wardlow is not a Supreme Court case that most Americans know well enough to cite by name, but the ruling has made a serious impact on policing. It gave authorities in high-crime neighborhoods the green light to stop people for behaving suspiciously. The high court’s decision has not only been linked to a rising number of stop-and-frisks but to high-profile police killings as well. It has also been held responsible for creating more inequities in the criminal justice system.

Does the 2000 Supreme Court decision deserve the blame? With this review of Illinois v. Wardlow, get the facts about the case and its consequences today.

Fast Facts: Illinois v. Wardlow

  • Case Argued: November 2, 1999
  • Decision Issued: January 12, 2000
  • Petitioner: State of Illinois
  • Respondent: Sam Wardlow
  • Key Questions: Does a suspect’s sudden and unprovoked flight from identifiable police officers patrolling a known high-crime area justify the officers stopping that person, or does it violate the Fourth Amendment?
  • Majority Decision: Justices Rehnquist, O'Connor, Kennedy, Scalia, and Thomas
  • Dissenting: Justices Stevens, Souter, Ginsberg, and Breyer
  • Ruling: The officer was justified in suspecting that the accused was involved in criminal activity and, therefore, in investigating further. There was no violation of the Fourth Amendment.

Should Police Have Stopped Sam Wardlow?

On Sept. 9, 1995, two Chicago police officers were driving through a Westside neighborhood known for drug trafficking when they spotted William “Sam” Wardlow. He stood beside a building with a bag in hand. But when Wardlow noticed the police driving through, he broke into a sprint. After a brief chase, the officers cornered Wardlow and frisked him. During the search, they found a loaded .38-caliber handgun. They then arrested Wardlow, who argued in court that the gun shouldn’t have been entered into evidence because the police lacked a reason to stop him. An Illinois trial court disagreed, convicting him of “unlawful use of a weapon by a felon.”

The Illinois Appellate Court reversed the lower court’s decision, asserting that the arresting officer didn’t have cause to stop and frisk Wardlow. The Illinois Supreme Court ruled along similar lines, arguing that Wardlow’s stop violated the Fourth Amendment.

Unfortunately for Wardlow, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, reached a different conclusion. It found:

“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.”

According to the court, the arresting officer hadn’t misstepped by detaining Wardlow because officers must make commonsense judgments to decide if someone is behaving suspiciously. The court said that its interpretation of the law did not contradict other rulings giving people the right to ignore police officers and go about their business when approached by them. But Wardlow, the court said, had done the opposite of going about his business by running away. Not everyone in the legal community agrees with this take.

Criticism of Wardlow

U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, now retired, wrote the dissent in Illinois v. Wardlow. He broke down the possible reasons people might run when encountering police officers.

“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.”

African Americans, in particular, have discussed their distrust and fear of law enforcement for years. Some would even go so far to say that they have developed PTSD-like symptoms because of their experiences with police. For these individuals, running from the authorities is likely instinct rather than a signal that they’ve committed a crime.

Additionally, former police chief and government official Chuck Drago pointed out to Business Insider how Illinois v. Wardlow affects the public differently based on income level.

“If the police are driving down a middle-class neighborhood, and the officer sees someone turn and run into their house, that’s not enough to follow them,” he said. “If he’s in a high-crime area though, there may be enough for reasonable suspicion. It’s the area he’s in, and those areas tend to be to impoverished and African American and Hispanic.”

Poor Black and Latino neighborhoods already have a greater police presence than white suburban areas. Authorizing police to detain anyone who runs from them in these areas increases the odds that residents will be racially profiled and arrested. Those familiar with Freddie Gray, the Baltimore man who died in police custody in 2015 after a “rough ride,” argue that Wardlow played a role in his death.

Officers apprehended Gray only after he “fled unprovoked upon noticing police presence.” They found a switchblade on him and arrested him. However, if the authorities had been prohibited from pursuing Gray simply because he fled from them in a high-crime neighborhood, he may very well still be alive today, his advocates argue. News of his death sparked protests across the country and unrest in Baltimore.

The year after Gray’s death, the Supreme Court decided 5-3 in Utah v. Strieff to let police use the evidence they’ve collected during unlawful stops in some circumstances. Justice Sonia Sotomayor expressed her dismay at the decision, arguing that the high court has already given the authorities ample opportunity to stop members of the public for little to no reason. She cited Wardlow and several other cases in her dissent.

“Although many Americans have been stopped for speeding or jaywalking, few may realize how degrading a stop can be when the officer is looking for more. This Court has allowed an officer to stop you for whatever reason he wants—so long as he can point to a pretextual justification after the fact.
“That justification must provide specific reasons why the officer suspected you were breaking the law, but it may factor in your ethnicity, where you live, what you were wearing and how you behaved (Illinois v. Wardlow). The officer does not even need to know which law you might have broken so long as he can later point to any possible infraction—even one that is minor, unrelated, or ambiguous.”

Sotomayor went on to argue that these questionable stops by police can easily escalate to officers looking through a person’s belongings, frisking the individual for weapons and performing an intimate bodily search. She argued unlawful police stops make the justice system unfair, endanger lives and corrode civil liberties. While young Black men like Freddie Gray have been stopped by police lawfully under Wardlow, their detainment and subsequent arrests cost them their lives.

The Effects of Wardlow

A 2015 report by the American Civil Liberties Union found that in the city of Chicago, where Wardlow was stopped for fleeing, police disproportionately stop and frisk young men of color.

African Americans constituted 72 percent of people stopped. Also, police stops overwhelmingly took place in majority-minority neighborhoods. Even in areas where Blacks make up a small percentage of residents, such as Near North, where they make up only 9 percent of the population, African Americans comprised 60 percent of people stopped.

These stops don’t make communities safer, the ACLU argued. They deepen the divides between the police and the communities they’re supposed to serve.

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Your Citation
Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "How the Illinois v. Wardlow Case Affects Policing." ThoughtCo, Feb. 7, 2021, Nittle, Nadra Kareem. (2021, February 7). How the Illinois v. Wardlow Case Affects Policing. Retrieved from Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "How the Illinois v. Wardlow Case Affects Policing." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 9, 2023).