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A Times Editorial

A troubling legal double standard

The Florida Legislature needs to heed the call of the state Supreme Court and correct an alarming double standard in criminal law that treats people differently based on where they live.

The state high court on Thursday upheld the conviction of a Hillsborough County teenager who ran from two sheriff's deputies in a high-crime area near the University of South Florida. He was convicted of resisting an officer without violence. In a better neighborhood, the teen's actions would not have constituted a crime, because police wouldn't have had enough reasonable suspicion to stop him.

The dichotomy was noted by the majority of the justices even as they voted 5-1 to affirm the young man's conviction. But they had little choice in their decision, since the Florida Constitution explicitly requires the state Supreme Court to heed the U.S. Supreme Court's rulings on issues related to unreasonable search and seizure. In 2000, the federal high court weakened Fourth Amendment rights for people who live, work or recreate in high-crime neighborhoods.

A basic premise of a free society is that authorities cannot stop you without good cause. If police have no basis to suspect you of wrongdoing, you may walk or even run away when they approach.

But that basic precept was altered by the U.S. Supreme Court in Illinois vs. Wardlow for people in high-crime areas who bolt at the sight of police approaching. The court reasoned that the evasive reaction in a place known for criminal activity raises enough reasonable suspicion to give police the power to hold the runner for an investigatory stop.

It may have been an unintended consequence, but in a state like Florida where it is a misdemeanor to refuse to follow a lawful order from police, the ruling meant that any time a person in a crime-ridden neighborhood runs from police he can face up to a year in jail. It also greatly shifts the balance of power in such situations, inviting potential abuse by rogue officers.

Chief Justice Peggy Quince, writing in dissent, declared that she couldn't go along with a decision "that could result in a large number of young people having criminal records … because they were uncomfortable with the possibility of having an encounter with the police."

In a separate concurrence, three of her fellow justices also expressed deep concerns, calling the case "extremely troubling" because of its potential for "unnecessary criminalization of otherwise innocent conduct" and adverse impact on minorities. They called on lawmakers to change the statute so that the mere act of running away does not constitute resisting arrest without violence.

The U.S. Supreme Court needs to revisit its Wardlow ruling and erase the distinction between the constitutional rights enjoyed by people in safe neighborhoods and those in places with more crime. But Florida shouldn't wait for that. The Legislature has a duty to change the law. This double standard should not be allowed to stand.

A troubling legal double standard 12/19/09 [Last modified: Saturday, December 19, 2009 9:17pm]
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