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PJC and allies challenge police who stop-and-frisk when people run in a “high-crime area”

August 7, 2017: It’s no surprise that he ran. When six police officers suddenly descended on a group of people standing in a dimly-lit parking lot, Jamal Sizer naturally bolted. When someone accosts you out of nowhere in the dark, you run. But simply the act of running in that neighborhood was enough for the cops to chase him down and tackle him.

What happened to Mr. Sizer happens to many people of color: police jumping out in surprise, tackling and searching them, and then justifying it all by saying they ran from police in a “high-crime area.” On August 7, the Public Justice Center, ACLU of Maryland and Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs challenged the legal precedent that allows this practice in an amicus brief in support of Mr. Sizer.

The justification for these stop-and-frisks began with a Supreme Court opinion in 2000. The Court held in Illinois v. Wardlow that police were justified in stopping and searching a person who, “unprovoked,” ran away from officers in “an area of heavy narcotics trafficking.” Police got even more leeway when an intermediate Maryland court created a bright-line rule in Mr. Sizer’s case, allowing police to seize an individual anytime a person runs from officers in a “high-crime area.” The decision opened the door even wider to abusive police tactics that are already too common and should be curtailed rather than emboldened.

Together, the court decisions in Wardlow and Sizer will allow police to ignore an individual’s right to be free from illegal search and seizure. When officers say that someone ran from them in a “high-crime area,” they don’t have to provide facts to show why the area is considered to be so. Those magic words are enough on their own. Nor do police have to consider reasons why an otherwise innocent person would choose to run from officers and avoid the indignity of a stop-and-frisk.

The brief from the Public Justice Center and allies shows how Wardlow has contributed to the overwhelming number of people of color who are affected by illegal stop-and-frisks. The brief discusses how “high-crime areas” are disproportionately labeled in communities of color and how racial tensions between those communities and police must be considered before deeming a person’s flight “unprovoked.”

We hope that this brief will help guide the Court of Appeals of Maryland to reject the intermediate court’s bright-line rule and curtail these abusive practices by requiring police to use more than magic words to justify unwarranted stops of law-abiding citizens.

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