A Supreme Court ruling bolstering the power of police to stop suspects is fueling debate over how much discretion they should have to pursue their hunches.
Critics of the decision said it poses risks for innocent citizens at a time when Americans are sensitized to the dangers of excessive police force in the case of a videotaped beating in Los Angeles.But law enforcement officials and victims rights advocates welcomed the ruling as part of a healthy trend.
The high court, voting 7-2 Tuesday, gave police significant new power to chase and apprehend people when officers have a hunch but no hard evidence a crime was committed.
The justices reinstated the drug-possession conviction of a young Oakland, Calif., man, identified as Hodari D., who fled at the sight of police and dropped crack cocaine during the chase.
James Lozenski, the Berkeley, Calif., lawyer who represented Hodari D., said, "It is a very sad day for civil rights in this country.
"I thought in view of the Rodney King beating the court might sit on this a little longer and ask themselves if they want to give police more power to harass people," Lozenski said.
King is the motorist whose beating March 3 by Los Angeles police was captured on videotape and has led to criminal charges against four officers.
Ronald Niver, deputy attorney general of California, said there is no connection between the Hodari D. and King cases.
Niver, who successfully argued before the high court that Hodari D.'s rights were not violated, said the justices have provided an important clarification for police.
The ruling says "a person running away is not seized" by police, Niver said. The issue "comes up fairly often in street-side confrontations" between police and citizens, he said.
The high court said the cocaine Hodari D. dropped seconds before he was tackled by a police officer may be used as evidence because he had not been seized by police at the time he dropped it.
The Constitution's Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures, does not apply until an individual has been physically restrained or submits to police authority, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the court.
Justice John Paul Stevens, in a strongly worded dissent, said the ruling could "encourage unlawful displays of (police) force that will frighten countless innocent citizens into surrendering whatever privacy rights they may still have."