In a case that could have broad ramifications for aggressive police tactics in high-crime neighborhoods, the Supreme Court heard arguments yesterday over whether police should be able to stop and frisk someone merely because he ran at the sight of an officer.

The dispute arises at a time of public concern over street crime but also over police methods that might unnecessarily sweep up innocent people, particularly those that appear to employ "racial profiling," in which people are targeted for scrutiny because of the color of their skin.

The case, which has drawn the attention of numerous police groups, civil libertarians and state officials, also recalls the political firestorm that erupted over a 1996 case in New York. U.S. District Judge Harold Baer Jr. had barred prosecutors from using in evidence drugs seized by police when they searched the defendants' car simply because they ran when they saw the officers approach. Then-presidential candidate Robert J. Dole and other congressional Republicans declared that Baer should be impeached and a Clinton spokesman briefly suggested he should resign. Baer eventually reversed himself.

Arguing before the court that officers should be able to search people who flee were attorneys for the U.S. Justice Department and the state of Illinois. "Flight is inherently suspicious," said Richard A. Devine, representing Illinois in its appeal of a state supreme court decision that said officers must have other reasons to suspect an individual is involved in a crime, beyond the person's mere flight.

Backed by "amicus" briefs from 17 states, Devine asked the court to rule that police can detain a person who flees a clearly identified officer without any provocation, such as a threat of beating or harassment.

Malcolm L. Stewart, assistant U.S. solicitor general, added that flight connotes panic, guilt or a desire to elude police scrutiny, any of which give officers grounds to suspect some wrongdoing.

The Fourth Amendment prohibits "unreasonable" searches, and the current rule of thumb when police are suspicious of an individual but lack specific grounds to believe a crime has occurred stems from a 1968 decision, Terry v. Ohio. The court said police can stop and frisk someone if--after considering all the circumstances of the scene--an officer has reason to believe he is dangerous. State courts are split over whether flight alone is sufficient reason to stop and frisk an individual.

The Supreme Court has a recent record of siding with law enforcement in disputes over police searches, but the justices yesterday appeared closely divided, with key swing votes Sandra Day O'Connor and Anthony M. Kennedy suggesting an ironclad standard based only a person's flight might be too severe. O'Connor asked at one point whether there is a right to "go one's own way," to which Stewart responded that there was no right to avoid police attention.

Other justices said there might be legitimate reasons for running away. Stephen G. Breyer suggested some people might be afraid of police, particularly in neighborhoods where most of the police officers are white and most of the residents are black.

"How high is the risk that innocents are going to be stopped?" asked Justice David H. Souter. He added that William Wardlow, the defendant in the Illinois case in question, was prompted to flee by four police cars and several officers suddenly descending on the Chicago street where he was standing. "Anyone in his right mind is going to want to get out of the way fast" when the police suddenly appear in such force, Souter said.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Antonin Scalia were most vigorous yesterday in support of the position that a person's flight from police is enough to raise suspicion and justify a search under the standard set in 1968. In an earlier case, Scalia had quoted the proverb that says, "the wicked flee when no man pursueth."

The case began when Wardlow--sometimes referred to in filings as "Sam"--fled from officers patrolling a high-crime area in Chicago. After an officer pursued and caught Wardlow, he discovered he was carrying an illegal handgun.

Representing Wardlow, James B. Koch told the justices that "one simple rule will not cover every situation." He urged the court to require police to look at all the circumstances on the street. Koch said police should be required to have other "corroborative" information, for example that the individual ran quickly out of a store or that screams were heard.

A ruling in the case of Illinois v. Wardlow is expected by next summer.