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Officers Not Allowed to Stop, Search Citizens Based Upon a 'Hunch' Regarding Criminal Activity

An Illinois Appellate Court ruling from earlier this year counted as a notable victory for the rights of citizens to be free from excessive police intrusion. A Chicago police officer stopped and searched a man based upon a hunch after seeing the man shove his hands down his pants. That hunch was not enough to constitute the sort of reasonable suspicion needed to warrant a stop and conduct a legal search.

An Illinois Appellate Court ruling from earlier this year counted as a notable victory for the rights of citizens to be free from excessive police intrusion. A Chicago police officer stopped and searched a man based upon a hunch after seeing the man shove his hands down his pants. That hunch was not enough to constitute the sort of reasonable suspicion needed to warrant a stop and conduct a legal search.

The case began after the police officer, who was pursuing another man that the officer suspected of engaging in the sale of narcotics, spotted Henry Sims stuffing his hands down the front of his pants. The officer did not know what Sims shoved into his pants, but he had a hunch it was a gun, so he stopped Sims. He performed a pat-down on the crotch area of Sims's pants and felt an object he recognized. It wasn't a gun, but it was a bag full of drugs. So he arrested Sims for possession of a controlled substance.

At trial, Sims' counsel sought to exclude the drug evidence obtained from the search. The officer didn't have probable cause to stop and search the man, since the man's simple act of shoving his hands down his pants was not enough to create a reasonable suspicion that he was doing anything illegal. Therefore, Sims argued, the evidence obtained from inside his pants was the result of an illegal search. The trial court disagreed, allowing the evidence, and the jury convicted the man.

On appeal, however, the Appellate Court reversed that decision and threw out the case against Sims. The officer did not see Sims do anything sufficiently suspicious. The officer admitted at trial that the act he observed - Sims' sticking his hands down his pants - was not illegal. The officer only knew that the man's conduct was consistent with the act of hiding a gun and that Sims had previously been arrested on a gun charge, although the officer did not know the outcome of that case. While the officer's history with criminals hiding weapons in their clothes, coupled with his knowledge of Sims' past, might be enough to give him a "gut feeling" about what the man was doing, the law is clear that such hunches are not enough to amount to the level of reasonable suspicion needed to stop and search an individual.

Reasonable suspicion "requires articulable facts which support the inference that a crime has been, or is about to be, committed." Sims's conduct, and the officer's hunch based upon that behavior, fell short of this standard.

Sims could have been doing any number of perfectly legal things with his hands down his pants, ranging from the innocent to the mildly impolite. The court recognized this, as well as the Fourth Amendment's guarantee allowing citizens to be free from being interfered with by police every time an officer has a "gut feeling." An investigator's "gut" may be enough on TV, but in the real world, the law requires more. If you or a loved one have been arrested after being stopped and searched by the police, you need to talk to knowledgeable Illinois criminal defense counsel. The DuPage County criminal defense attorneys at Martin & Kent are here to help. Our experienced attorneys can help you understand your rights and the defenses available to you in your case.

Contact us online or by calling (888) 388-9151 to schedule your confidential initial consultation at no charge.

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