Legal Case Brief Essay

Legal Case Brief Essay

1) Parties

State of Illinois (petitioner) v. Sam Wardlow (respondent)

2) Case Level

The Supreme Court of the United States decided the case on certiorari from the Supreme Court of Illinois.

Rehnquist, C. J., delivered the decision of the Court, in which O’Connor, Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas, JJ. joined. Stevens, J., presented an opinion that concurs in part and dissents in part with the majority decision, in which Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer, JJ. joined.

3) Legal Issue

Does unprovoked flight from a uniformed law enforcement officer validate a Terry stop?

4) Facts of the Case

The respondent, Sam Wardlow, was standing next to a building holding an opaque bag. He glanced at the vehicle driven by police officers and then ran. Police officers riding the fourth vehicle in a caravan targeting an area known for narcotics trade pursued Wardlow. After catching up with him, one of the police officers stopped him and conducted a pat down. The content of the opaque bag was a .38 caliber loaded firearm. Wardlow was arrested.

Wardlow filed a motion to suppress the evidence on the ground that the stop and pat down were in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The Illinois trial court denied the motion and found the respondent guilty of unlawful use of a weapon by a felon. On appeal, the Illinois Appellate Court reversed the decision of the trial court on the ground that the suspicion justifying the police officer’s use of the Terry stop was unreasonable because the respondent was not in an area known for rampant criminal activities. The Illinois Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the appellate court but rejected the finding that the respondent was not in an area where high frequency of crimes occurs. However, the Illinois Supreme Court stated that flight even from such area does not constitute reasonable suspicion to support a Terry stop. The case went up to the U.S. Supreme court upon request of a per se rule on unprovoked flight as a justification for Terry stop.

5) Rule of Law

The court analyzed the ruling in Terry v. Ohio (1968), which provides that law enforcement officers can conduct an investigatory stop, without violating the Fourth Amendment, provided this is in consonance with a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. The Fourth Amendment requires a minimum degree of objective justification for conducting an investigatory stop. The officer doing the investigatory stop should be able to articulate a reasonable justification for the stop, which should be more than a mere hunch.

The court considered the policy of attaching reasonable suspicion to unprovoked flight upon seeing uniformed police officers as a reasonable justification for a Terry stop.

6) Reasoning/Analysis

In considering the facts of the case, the court applied the ‘totality-of-the-circumstances test’ to determine the existence of reasonable suspicion. This test considers the situation, the environment, and the circumstances surrounding the actions of the respondent and the police officers. There can be no per se reasonable inference from unprovoked flight since there is no scientific evidence to support this and there is a boundless range of reasons for unprovoked flight in seeing a uniformed police officer that could reflect guilty or innocent action. The totality of the circumstances should be the determinant of whether the unprovoked flight warrants reasonable suspicion to justify a Terry stop. In application to the case, the court held that the Terry stop was compliant of the Fourth Amendment. The presence of the respondent in a high-crimes area, his unprovoked flight upon seeing uniformed police, and the discovery of a loaded gun in his possession all support reasonable suspicion.

7) Holding

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the ruling of the Illinois Supreme Court and remanded the case for the appropriate proceeding coinciding with its decision.


Illinois v. Wardlow, United States Supreme Court No. 98-1036 (2000). Retrieved June 17, 2009, from

Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968). Retrieved June 17, 2009, from

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