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Florida Supreme Court says in some neighborhoods fleeing police is resisting arrest

TAMPA — Fleeing from authorities after being ordered to stop in a high-crime area is against the law, the Florida Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

Troubled that the opinion will adversely affect poor and minority neighborhoods, Chief Justice Peggy Quince, the sole dissenter, and several members of the majority urged the Legislature to clear up the potential double standard.

The justices were bothered that a person living in an area known for criminal activity could be arrested for fleeing at the sight of police, while residents of safer neighborhoods could run without consequence.

"I cannot believe that we as a society have come to the point where we are willing to make criminals of people, especially our young people, based on where they live," Quince wrote.

Fleeing alone is not a criminal offense. But the state's highest court cited a 2000 U.S. Supreme Court decision that held that running from police in high-crime areas created the reasonable suspicion needed to make a lawful investigative stop.

Coupled with Florida law, continued flight in knowing defiance of law enforcement constituted resisting arrest without violence, the majority said.

"This Court is obligated to apply the law as written by the Legislature and to follow the Fourth Amendment precedent laid out by the United States Supreme Court, even if we question the wisdom of that precedent or the public policy behind the law," the majority opinion stated.

Though the ruling has statewide implications, the 5-1 vote specifically upheld the 2007 arrest of a Hillsborough County teenager.

In response to complaints about drugs and trespassing, sheriff's deputies were patrolling an apartment complex on Marathon Key Drive, in a high-crime area near the University of South Florida, when they approached a 15-year-old black boy who was standing in a public area with a friend.

The 15-year-old saw them and bolted, continuing to run even after the deputies told him to stop.

Attorneys for the teen argued that deputies lacked sufficient reason to detain him before he fled, and that running, by itself, wasn't enough to support a charge of resisting arrest.

But the 2nd District Court of Appeal, which hears cases from 14 counties including Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough, affirmed the teen's conviction last year.

Because that decision conflicted with an opinion by the 3rd District Court of Appeal for a juvenile case with similar facts, the state Supreme Court was asked the resolve the issue. It sided with the 2nd DCA.

As it turned out, there was an outstanding warrant for the Hills­borough teen. But the Supreme Court said that had no bearing on the question before them, and had no effect on their analysis.

Hillsborough sheriff's spokesman Larry McKinnon applauded the outcome, which supports his agency's current practices.

"We appreciate any tool that the courts will give us that we can utilize fairly to help reduce crime in the community," he said.

St. Petersburg police spokesman Bill Proffitt said the department needed to review how the court's ruling might apply to its officers.

"When you start talking about stopping people," Proffitt said, "it's a very broad area of law."

Unlike for vehicular pursuits, the St. Petersburg Police Department doesn't have a policy about who officers can run after and why. That's up to the officers. But it does have rules when officers stop and question people.

"Short of an arrest," Proffitt said, "an officer needs a reasonable, articulable suspicion that somebody has committed a crime."

In her concurring opinion, Justice Barbara Pariente pointed out that the juvenile at the center of the Hillsborough case was hanging out in a high-crime neighborhood because it was his home. He lived with his mother about a mile from where deputies arrested him.

She echoed an appellate judge's concerns that so-called high-crime areas had no signs warning people they were in a region with reduced constitutional rights, and the classification was based on subjective testimony by individual law enforcement officers.

"The unintended consequence of today's holding is its effect on poor and ethnic minority neighborhoods designated as 'high-crime areas,' " Pariente wrote.

"Notably, if this occurred several miles away, in an area where crime or drug activity was perhaps not so prevalent, (the Hillsborough teen) would have been free to do the 'crime' for which he was charged and remain unscathed."

Bill Sims, a community activist and former social service coordinator at Belmont Heights Estates in Tampa, said police regularly behave in different ways depending on what neighborhood they are in. Still, he found it strange that the state's highest court ruled as it did.

"If this was up in New Tampa or over in Hyde Park or one of the other neighborhoods," Sims said, "I'm not sure that it would be handled the same way."

Times staff writers Jamal Thalji and Curtis Krueger contributed to this report. Colleen Jenkins can be reached at cjenkins@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.

Florida Supreme Court says in some neighborhoods fleeing police is resisting arrest 12/17/09 [Last modified: Thursday, December 17, 2009 11:29pm]
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