“High Crime Area”

There are many definitions in the law that are fuzzy and up for interpretation. One that is used to justify a host of constitutional violations is “high crime area.”

Here’s a quick primer on “high crime area.” Look around you. Are there a lot of black and/or Hispanic people? Are most of the stores selling malt liquor, cigarettes and have a distinct lack of produce? Are the cars in your areas on blocks and/or ridiculous rims?

Then you live in a “high crime area.”

You don’t need statistics to justify it. You must not prove that compared to other areas of the city it has more crime. Just say it, and it is!

A recent ruling in the 1st Dist. Appellate Court (that’s Cook County, yo) showed that maybe, just perhaps, courts are going to start looking at “high crime area” and its progeny and limit them.

In re. Mario T., No. 1-05-3499 (that’s a juvenile case…we don’t use their full names to protect them) discusses the use of “high crime area” to justify the search of a loitering juvenile.

In the case, police were called to apartment building after reports of three unknown men breaking into a vacant unit. Two officers responded to the building at 2964 S. State. Keep in mind, that’s less than a block from IIT, and, hilariously enough, about two blocks from police headquarters on Michigan Ave. and 35th St.

Upon arrival, the police find four youths (pronounced “yoots” in Pesci-lawyer-speak) loitering in the hallway. At this point, minus any other information, the police have no right, or justification to search the kids. Until the kids raise a “reasonable suspicion” in the police, they can’t search. The police need a “reasonable suspicion” to perform what is known as the “stop and frisk” or the Terry stop.

Terry was a bloke in Ohio back in the day (the 60’s) who was frisked by a police officer when Terry raised the cop’s suspicion that he was casing a store to rob. The police may “frisk” you for the purpose of making themselves safe…aka, check to see if you’re carrying a weapon. But that’s about all they are supposed to look for in the search.

Basically, the police operate on three levels of interaction with you. One is normal. They’re a dude, you’re a dude, you’re hanging out, nothing happening. Two is “reasonable suspicion.” This is where you’ve done something to make the cop suspicious that criminal activity is afoot. Third is “probable cause.” At this point, the cops can arrest you. Prior to that, they can’t.

Well, Officer Handsy (not her real name) frisked the yoots and found herself a big ol’ bag of crack. Actually, a big bag with 26 smaller baggies in it. It’s like a box of Cracker Jacks with nothing but prizes in it!

Anyway, was Officer Handsy’s search justified? What sort of reasonable suspicion could these daaangerous youths have inspired in her? They live in a “high crime area”! That’s how!

The officer testified that it was determined that the youths didn’t live in the building (although the kid in question for this case lived down the street) and said they were visiting one of their sisters. Officer Handsy said that it was her experience that the building they were in and the area they were in had a lot of investigations involving guns and drugs. Oh my!

This is the weakest leg to stand on I have ever heard for the justification of a search. And to the lawyer’s credit in the case, he argued, “under the state’s attorney’s theory, everyone who lives there…is subject to a reasonable search and seizure…because…anyone who lives in that area is under suspicion based on the fact that they simply live there.”

Bingo.

“High crime area” is such a nebulous and, frankly, bullshit definition and yet it is used to justify searching, well, black and Hispanic people, wherever the police damn well please.

So, the Appeals Court, applying a bit of common sense and bit of Constitutional analysis, decided this was not enough. Officer Handsy had no reason to search the youths, the bag of crack was suppressed, and presumably, when the state tries to bring this case again, they will simply give up.

But! A kid got away with possessing a whole lotta crack! Yup. He sure did. And he did so to protect yours and mine civil rights. The fact is, we as a society punish the lawless. In this case, the lawless individuals were the police. We punish them by removing the “fruits of the poisonous tree.” Without rambling on and on, this is to say, we don’t let the police use against you what they illegally obtain. Since these youths, and Mario T. especially, had their rights violated by claiming that by virtue of them living in a “high crime area” the police can search them just for standing around in a hallway, the police were punished by not letting them use the drugs in the court case.

Now, the police sympathizers on the court stated that this was just smart police work. A dissenting judge, Presiding Justice Cahill, said that any police officer would have done exactly the same thing. Officer Handsy had said in court that she was afraid, concerned for her safety. And when you perform a Terry stop, as a police officer, you are protecting yourself by making sure the person you stopped doesn’t pull a piece on you.

BUT! You have to have a reason to believe that person is possibly up to criminal activity. Four kids, in a building, in a hallway, doing nothing else, not matching the description (presumably) of the men breaking into the apartment that brought the police there in the first place, well, what exactly are they up to?

Being black. And young. In a bad neighborhood. And usually that’s enough to let the police violate your rights.

Not this time.

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