Two different courts recently reviewed two similar search-and-seizure cases and reached conclusions that show that a small difference in facts can generate big differences in results.
But one thing is pretty clear about the rulings — running away from the police is a no-no. It’s much safer — legally — for an individual who wants to avoid interacting with officers to engage in a leisurely stroll.
In a state appeals court case from Chicago decided in early December, judges threw out the conviction of 47-year-old Edward Bloxton for possessing an illegal firearm. Prosecutors unsuccessfully argued the legality of the arrest by arguing that Bloxton tried to avoid questions by walking away from police officers.
“Bloxton’s walking away did not create probable cause, as this court has consistently held it is not sufficient to establish even the reasonable suspicion necessary to effectuate an investigatory stop,” wrote appellate Justice Michael Hyman.
In a more recent decision in Chicago federal court, U.S. Judge Edmond Chang ruled against Nicholas Williams because he ran away when he saw that officers wished to speak with him. Change wrote that “flight — wherever it occurs — is the consummate act of evasion.”
The two cases reflect the Chicago police’s priorities of identifying individuals carrying illegal guns and getting both the individuals and their guns off the streets. But what’s the proper legal protocol?
Bloxton was among a group of people drinking from plastic cups on a street in a high-crime Chicago neighborhood.
Suspecting they were illegally consuming alcohol on a public way, officers approached to see what was up.
Bloxton, who was not drinking from a plastic cup, started to walk away, but not before one officer spotted a bulge in his pants that he suspected to be a handgun. Authorities later found he was carrying a handgun whose serial numbers were defaced.
In Williams’ case, four officers in unmarked cars were patrolling the high-crime Cabrini Green neighborhood when they saw him walking on a public sidewalk. They testified that they decided to conduct a “field identification” interview with him — a process that involves asking questions about suspicious behavior in the neighborhood.
But Williams broke out in a run, jumping two fences before police caught him. Police said they found he was carrying an illegal handgun as well as crack cocaine.
In both cases, defense lawyers sought dismissals on the grounds that police lacked the authority to question and search their clients.
The facts of the cases are somewhat different.
In Bloxton’s case, police suspected illegal drinking, giving them the authority to conduct a brief interrogation to determine if a law was being broken.
In Williams’ case, officers sought his voluntary participation in an interview, meaning he was free to walk away.
But because Williams ran, Chang concluded, officers had the right to chase him down and search him.
Because Bloxton was not drinking from his cup and merely walked away, the appellate court ruled police lacked the power to stop and search him. Further, it ruled, they couldn’t arrest Bloxton for possession of a weapon because they didn’t know the gun he possessed was illegal.
The Bloxton majority noted that concealed carry is legal in Illinois, so possession of a firearm is no longer automatically illegal. The judges concluded the evidence against Bloxton should have been thrown out.
Bloxton, who was convicted of illegal possession of a defaced firearm by a convicted felon, was sentenced to five years in prison. He was already out on parole by the time his conviction was thrown out.
Williams still faces trial.
Both rulings are expected to be appealed.
The attorney general’s office will almost certainly ask the Illinois Supreme Court to review the Bloxton ruling.
Williams’ lawyer told the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin that the case “presents an important and timely opportunity” to examine the law, particularly as it relates to police stops in neighborhoods characterized as “high crime.”
Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 217-351-5369.