A federal appeals court ruled today that undercover police officers operating at Washington National Airport may not detain passengers for questioning simply because police consider their behavior "nervous" or "distraught."

The Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in a 2-to-1 decision that police perceptions of the behavior of James Gooding, 35, convicted in 1981 on a drug-related charge after his arrest at the airport, did not constitute sufficient evidence of suspicious behavior to be stopped and searched by police.

"Though the constitutional requirement of a 'reasonable articulable suspicion' for police investigative seizures has come justifiably to be a lenient one . . . it nevertheless protects a precious right -- hard earned and easily lost -- to be free of arbitrary police intrusions on individual privacy and free movement," wrote Justice J. Dickson Phillips Jr.

The ruling overturned the conviction of Gooding, sentenced to a year in jail with all but 60 days suspended, and could stiffen the standards under which the Drug Enforcement Administration and D. C. Police Department undercover agents detain suspected drug traffickers at Washington's two airports.

Gooding, of New York City, was stopped for questioning by undercover officers at National in 1980. The officers testified that Gooding's nervous behavior -- making three telephone calls and appearing angry and distraught when nobody arrived to meet him -- constituted suspicious behavior that justified a search.

Upon questioning Gooding and searching his bags, the officers discovered a plain white, legal-size envelope that contained less than an ounce of 41 percent pure cocaine. Gooding was convicted in U.S. District Court of possession with intent to distribute, although he was released on bond pending appeal.