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High Court: Fleeing, Other Factors Justify Detention

February 01, 2000  | 

Ratcheting up the authority of police to stop and question fleeing individuals, the U.S. Supreme Court in mid-January, ruled that officers can legally detain someone who runs upon merely seeing the police if other factors are present and can be articulated by officers.

The Jan. 12 ruling in Illinois vs. Wardlow resulted from the high court being asked to determine if pursuant to Terry vs. Ohio, police officers have the right to stop and investigate an individual simply because the person flees for no apparent reason upon encountering an officer.

The court held that under Terry vs. Ohio, an officer may, consistent with the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, conduct a brief investigatory stop when the officer has a reasonable, articulable suspicion that criminal activity is occurring.

However, the court stopped short of endorsing wholesale detentions based entirely on an individual's flight, and ruled that the totality of the circumstances must be considered -- and presented to the courts -- by officers.

Such relevant factors, the court said, included the presence of the person in a high-crime area or nervous or evasive behavior. In other business, the high court is slated later this year to re-examine the Miranda ruling, which dates from the 1966 case of Miranda vs. Arizona and is one of the landmark legal decisions in the 20th century affecting law enforcement.

The current challenge of Miranda, a law requiring police officers to "read arrestees their rights," stems from the argument of Paul Cassell, a University of Utah law professor. Cassell, in the course of a federal appeals court bank robbery case early last year, argued that due to a little-known 1968 federal law known as Section 3501, a confession made before Miranda warnings were given could be used in court.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, ruling that failure to issue Miranda warnings is just one of many factors that should be taken into account in deciding whether or not a confession had been coerced or given voluntarily.

Supporters of Miranda see it as a protection against police abuse. Others feel it needlessly hampers thousands of cases a year. Now it will be up to the Supreme Court to decide whether federal courts will be allowed to hear "non-Mirandized" evidence. A decision, which would affect federal -- and possibly state -- cases is expected sometime next summer.

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