Discovering the Victim: The Enduring Problem with “High-Crime Areas”


In 1995, Chicago police officers stopped and frisked Sam Wardlow, a black man, after he reportedly ran from them in a “high-crime area” of Chicago, Illinois. The Supreme Court ultimately upheld the stop and frisk in Illinois v. Wardlow, concluding that flight from law enforcement in a high-crime area constituted sufficient reasonable articulable suspicion to satisfy the Fourth Amendment’s strictures on searches and seizures. Twenty years later, Baltimore police stopped another black man, Freddie Gray, this time for allegedly fleeing in a high-crime area of Baltimore, Maryland. Gray was arrested following the stop and frisk, and later died from injuries he sustained in police custody. His death ignited a public uprising in Baltimore, leading to intense protests and violence. Yet under Wardlow, the police officers who stopped Freddie Gray decades later did so within the bounds of the Fourth Amendment.

After Wardlow, academics and jurists began analyzing the high-crime area factor’s place in the “reasonable articulable suspicion” inquiry. Many academics—and some federal judges—recognized the problems associated with labeling entire communities “high-crime areas,” including the disproportionate impact that such weakened constitutional protections have on communities of color. Most argued for creating objective criteria to determine when and how the factor is used, often seeking to limit the spatial boundaries of high-crime areas. None, however, tracked the Supreme Court’s establishment of the high-crime area factor as it relates to the factor’s effect on racial identity and criminality, and racially discriminatory policing.

Using Alan David Freeman’s “perpetrator-victim” framework, I explain that even reform-minded academics and judges consider the high-crime area factor from the perpetrator perspective. That position has given rise to proposed legal remedies that fail to support those living and working under weakened constitutional protection, most of whom are poor people of color. I also build upon Devon Carbado’s use of a modified perpetrator-victim framework by focusing on the Court’s active role in legitimizing and reproducing racially discriminatory police tactics, and by considering the effects on various racial minorities. By tracing the history of the term “high-crime area,” I intend to demonstrate that the Supreme Court acts as a type of mirror, reflecting and validating police practices in predominantly black and brown neighborhoods. I also explore how that action aids in constructing racial identities tied to stereotypes of criminality. I then use Freeman’s framework to analyze the high- crime area factor from the victim perspective. My analysis reveals that ending the factor’s use in the reasonable articulable suspicion inquiry would not change racially discriminatory policing or meaningfully help communities struggling with high crime rates. Instead, the victim perspective shows that change must begin with an attack on the conditions associated with poverty, crime, and cycles of imprisonment. Finally, I discuss extrajudicial changes that may begin to remedy those conditions, which include acknowledging and ending various ways the criminal system targets black men, the social distinction between innocents and criminals, and the modern prison system.


Stanford University Stanford, California
  • Holt Ortiz Alden, Note, Discovering the Victim: The Enduring Problem with "High-Crime Areas", 16 Stan. J. C.R. & C.L. 385 (2020).
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