Friday, September 26, 2014

“High Crime Area” Undefined

Map of US Murder Rate in 1965
The phrase “high-crime area” is often thrown around, but what does it mean exactly?  The term "high-crime area" was first used by the Supreme Court in Adams v. Williams, where the Court stated: "While properly investigating the activity of a person who was reported to be carrying narcotics and a concealed weapon and who was sitting alone in a car in a high-crime area at 2:15 in the morning, Sgt. Connolly had ample reason to fear for his safety." In a series of Fourth Amendment cases from Adams v. Williams to Illinois v. Wardlow, the Supreme Court of the United States has considered the character of the neighborhood to be one factor in finding "reasonable suspicion" to stop someone. Specifically, in Wardlow, the Court found that "officers are not required to ignore the relevant characteristics of a location in determining whether the circumstances are sufficiently suspicious to warrant further investigation." 

In Brown v. Texas, the Supreme Court was asked to decide whether being confronted in a “high-crime area” alone was enough to justify a Terry stop.  The officers in Brown could only say that the appellant "looked suspicious," but could not articulate why. The Court eliminated this factor from consideration.  The only other factor the officer offered was that the appellant was in a high-crime area. The Court held that, standing alone, being in a high-crime area was "not a basis for concluding that appellant himself was engaged in criminal conduct," because the "appellant's activity was no different from the activity of other pedestrians in that neighborhood."  While stating that being in a high-crime area is insufficient to show reasonable suspicion, the Court did not exclude the factor from consideration, so long as the officer could point to other facts that differentiated the suspect from the community at large.

Although the Supreme Court does not allow the character of the neighborhood to be the sole justification for a stop based on reasonable suspicion, it has narrowed the totality of circumstances needed to two factors: "high-crime area" and unprovoked flight from police. 

After the Supreme Court's decision in Wardlow, courts could consider whether an area is a “high-crime area” in a Fourth Amendment reasonable suspicion determination. The problem is that the Supreme Court has never provided a definition and lower court decisions offer little guidance.

In Washington, D. C., “several arrests" has been deemed sufficient to title a location as a “high-crime area.” This criterion was observed in United States v. Lovelace. where officers testifying to making several prior narcotics arrests coupled with residents' complaints of narcotics dealing was sufficient to characterize that area as a "high-crime area." In James v. United States, a District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Officer pulled over a car that had just swerved near the officer's cruiser.  The stop occurred on a street described by the officer as "high crime, violent crime, it's high narcotics, it's high everything - burglaries, robberies."  When the officer approached the car, the driver looked at the officer and "kind of raised his body up a little bit, and then bent all the way down and then he sat back up."  This led the officer to believe that the driver was "pulling a gun from his waist and putting it under the seat."  A search incident to the stop resulted in the recovery of a gun, and James was charged with a series of gun offenses.  James moved to suppress the gun and lost.  On appeal, after noting that the "high-crime area" factor is "certainly relevant," the District of Columbia Court of Appeals stated “that is especially true in this case, given that the area where appellant was stopped was not just a ‘high crime' area, but an area known specifically for the type of activity - i.e., gun possession - of which [the officer] suspected appellant." Based on the near collision and the “high-crime area,” the District of Columbia Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision.

Mayes v. United States, provides yet another example of the pitfalls of imprecision and unreliability surrounding the term “high-crime area.” In Mayes, the officers approached a stopped car in front of a "notorious crack house" which they believed matched the description of a car used in a shooting the previous night.   At the motions hearing, the government offered evidence that the block on which the stop occurred was in a "high-crime area," generally, and that the house in which the defendants were parked in front of was, in particular, a "notorious crack house."  Defense council rebuked the government’s assertion and introduced testimony that showed that "the building was in fact a high-rent luxury apartment house with its own security fence," which housed mostly "professional people." Although the trial court rejected the officer's claim that the house was a "notorious crack house," it still "credited the testimony that the general area was a high crime area.  Further, the appellate court held that "the trial court was required, and so are we, to include in the [reasonable suspicion] calculus … the character of the neighborhood."

Mayes, Lovelace, and James highlight the difficulties that can arise when areas in our nation’s capital are described as high-crime and not supported by documented and quantifiable evidence. Moving forward practitioners should seek to investigate the foundation for such assertions. Statistics and trend analysis should be used in conjunction with officer testimony to support the designation of an area as “high-crime.”

Stephane L. Plantin
Staffer, Criminal Law Practitioner

Photo by Delphi234 via Wikimedia Commons

2 comments:

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