Criminal Law Blog

There are innocent reasons to flee the police.

Miles v. United States (decided March 29, 2018)

The Players: Associate Judges Glickman, Beckwith, and McLeese. Opinion by Judge Backwith. Dissent by Judge McLeese. William T. Morrison for Mr. Miles.  Trial Judge: Stuart G. Nash.

Facts: An anonymous 911 caller claimed there was a black man in a blue army coat with a gun on a particular block. The police stopped appellant—a black man wearing an arguably blue camouflage jacket—a few blocks away. After seeing appellant, one officer drove his car up onto the sidewalk to prevent appellant from continuing in his direction of travel (which was inconsistent with what the tipster had provided). Appellant immediately tried to run away from the police cruiser, and was swiftly caught by the officer, who felt a hard object at appellant’s waist. Appellant was searched and found to be carrying a gun.

Issue: Did appellant’s flight when confronted by the police, coupled with the anonymous phone tip, give the police reasonable articulable suspicion (RAS) to stop appellant?

Answer: No. Even deferring to the trial court’s conclusion that the description given by the anonymous caller matched appellant, the only corroboration of the illegality alleged in the tip was appellant’s flight. Without more, there was no RAS.

First, the Court noted that the anonymous tip in this case was not enough on its own to justify the stop because, while it identified a specific person, there was nothing to corroborate its bald assertion of illegality. Thus, the police needed an on-the-scene reason to stop appellant, and here, the only indication of illegality was appellant’s flight. The Court held that his flight alone, under the circumstances of this case, was not enough to justify a stop.

The Court distinguished this case from Illinois v. Wardlaw, 528 U.S. 119 (2000), in several ways. First, in Wardlaw, there were additional factors other than flight that supported RAS (area known for drug trafficking, and Wardlaw’s possession of an opaque bag were consistent with suspecting him of dealing drugs). Here, appellant’s flight was the ONLY indication of illegality. Second, in Wardlaw, the flight was unprovoked (Wardlaw ran as soon as he saw police officers in the area, before any had approached him). Here, appellant’s flight was in response to a sudden and aggressive attempt to stop him; the police pulled up onto the sidewalk to prevent his travel along the sidewalk. Flight in face of such aggressive police behavior is a reasonable response from an innocent person, particularly a black man.

Most significantly, the Court cites many sources documenting the disproportionate use of deadly force against black men, as well as the new prevalence of videos capturing the use of such force. Furthermore, the Court holds, “an investigatory stop and frisk is not a ‘petty indignity’—‘it is a serious intrusion upon the sanctity of the person’—and though we lack adequate empirical grounds for fathoming the extent to which innocent people might flee to avoid being subjected to one, it seems safe to say that the number is not insignificant.” Slip. Op. at 19. Without any additional indicia of illegality, the police did not have RAS to stop appellant. CP 

Read the full opinion here.