This week alone at least three new names were added to the already too long list of black boys and men killed by law enforcement. Tyree King, a 13-year-old boy from Columbus, Ohio; Terrence Crutcher in Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte, North Carolina, were all shot to death by police.
For black men in America, a seemingly run-of-the-mill police stop can turn deadly in a single moment. Now, even the highest court in Massachusetts is acknowledging that black men may reasonably avoid police interaction, even when they’ve done nothing wrong.
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) ruled this week that black men may have a legitimate justification in running from police. The controversial ruling, a noteworthy acknowledgement that black men are treated differently by law enforcement, was part of the analysis in the court’s decision to throw out defendant Jimmy Warren’s gun conviction. From WBUR:
Warren was arrested on Dec. 18, 2011, by police who were investigating a break-in in Roxbury. Police had been given a description of the suspects as three black men — one wearing a “red hoodie,” one wearing a “black hoodie” and the other wearing “dark clothing.” An officer later spotted Warren and another man (both wearing dark clothing) walking near a park. When the officer approached the men, they ran. Warren was later arrested and searched. No contraband was found on him, but police recovered an unlicensed .22 caliber firearm in a nearby yard. Warren was charged with unlawful possession of a firearm[.]
Warren filed a motion to suppress the gun as well as statements he made after being arrested, arguing that the police “lacked reasonable suspicion for the stop.” The trial judge denied his motion and convicted him. Warren appealed his conviction, but the state’s appellate court sided with the police. He appealed again to the SJC, who decided to hear the case.
On Tuesday the court ruled in Warren’s favor and vacated his conviction, finding both that police did not have sufficiently reasonable suspicion to stop and search him, and that Warren’s decision to run should not be held against him. The ruling is a victory for defendants, especially those disproportionately subject to vague and invasive searches by law enforcement.
The court’s ruling was based on two main considerations. The first considered whether or not the initial stop of Warren was reasonable. “[R]easonable suspicion ‘must be grounded in specific, articulable facts and reasonable inferences [drawn] therefrom rather than on a hunch,'” the decision stated. “The essence of the reasonable suspicion inquiry is whether the police have an individualized suspicion that the person seized is the perpetrator of the suspected crime.”
Police said that they were looking for “two black males” wearing the ubiquitous and nondescriptive “dark clothing,” and one black male wearing a “red hoodie.” The court did not find this to be particular enough, stating:
Lacking any information about facial features, hairstyles, skin tone, height, weight, or other physical characteristics, the victim’s description ‘contribute[d] nothing to the officers’ ability to distinguish the defendant from any other black male’ wearing dark clothes and a ‘hoodie’ in Roxbury.
The second part of the decision found that fleeing should not automatically signal guilt. The court noted first that people have the legal right to choose not to speak to police. Individuals can even walk away if they aren’t being arrested or charged with anything.
But the most remarkable part of the decision, however, went beyond just the legal right. The court found in particular that black men like Warren may reasonably choose to flee given law enforcement’s rampant profiling and mistreatment.
[The] finding that black males in Boston are disproportionately and repeatedly targeted for FIO [Field Interrogation and Observation] encounters suggests a reason for flight totally unrelated to consciousness of guilt. Such an individual, when approached by the police, might just as easily be motivated by the desire to avoid the recurring indignity of being racially profiled as by the desire to hide criminal activity. Given this reality for black males in the city of Boston, a judge should, in appropriate cases, consider the report’s findings in weighing flight as a factor in the reasonable suspicion calculus.