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Police lacked reasonable suspicion to stop person in high crime area

State v. Jennifer L. Wilson, 2014AP2358-CR, District 3, 4/21/15 (one-judge decision; ineligible for publication); case activity (including briefs)

A person’s presence in an area with frequent calls for drug activity and a suspected drug house is not, by itself, enough to justify an investigative stop of the person; the police must have particularized information that the person might be engaged in criminal activity. Police lacked that kind of particularized information in this case, so the stop was unlawful.

An anonymous tipster reported that a truck had parked near an alley and that a woman left the truck and walked down the alley, possibly to buy drugs. The officer responding to the tip was familiar with the neighborhood and its reputed drug activity; she knew that “a particular resident” in “a specific house on the same block” “had a history of violence and drug distribution.” The officer saw a woman (who turned out to be Wilson) walking toward the truck from the direction of the alleged drug house ten to fifteen minutes after the dispatch. But the officer had no description of the woman who left the truck and walked down the alley, so the officer had no idea if Wilson was associated with the truck; nor did she have any idea if the woman had visited the drug house. When the officer told Wilson to stop, Wilson stopped; she didn’t act suspiciously or try to flee. At no time did the officer see any illegal activity. (¶¶3-5, 10-12).

“‘An individual’s presence in an area of expected criminal activity, standing alone, is not enough to support a reasonable, particularized suspicion that the person is committing a crime.’” State v. Pugh, 2013 WI App 12, ¶12, 345 Wis. 2d 832, 826 N.W.2d 418 (quoting Illinois v. Wardlow, 528 U.S. 119, 124 (2000)); State v. Washington, 2005 WI App 123, ¶17, 284 Wis. 2d 456, 700 N.W.2d 305. While the high-crime nature of the neighborhood factors into the reasonable suspicion determination (¶17), the question is whether the information the officer had over and above the high-crime neighborhood was enough to justify the stop of Wilson. The court of appeals answers “No”:

¶18      …. We observe the anonymous call provided little particularized information from the start that could then be substantiated by [Officer] Meves. The red truck was not parked in front of the “drug house,” nor was Wilson observed entering or exiting the “drug house,” by the caller or by Meves. Even if she had been observed entering or exiting that particular address, that tells us little about her activities there. …. Meves initiated the investigatory stop as soon as she saw Wilson, without any independent observations of her conduct. She admitted she did not observe any illegal activity, nor did she testify that Wilson had behaved suspiciously. In sum, Meves failed to articulate sufficient objective facts about Wilson that could “warrant a reasonable [person] of caution in the belief that the action taken was appropriate.” Terry [v. Ohio], 392 U.S. [1,] 22 [(1968)] (quotation and citation omitted).

The court also notes that while police officers are not required to rule out the possibility of innocent behavior, they still must have a reasonable suspicion grounded in specific articulable facts that a person is violating the law. “Here, the record is devoid of facts supporting an inference that Wilson engaged in a drug transaction—or any criminal activity, for that matter—especially given that she was never observed interacting with or making an exchange with anyone.” (¶19).

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