In a ruling by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court that an ACLU leader called “powerful,” the court stated that it is “reasonable” for black suspects to flee police considering statistics that show that people of color are stopped far more often than their white counterparts.
The case being decided was an appeal of a conviction against a man named Jimmy Warren, who was chased by police on December 18, 2011. After a local break-in, a description of the suspects went out to police and included a bare minimum of details. One man wearing a red hoodie, one a black hoodie, the other “dark clothing.” All three were black.
Police later saw Warren, a black man dressed in dark clothing, speaking with a friend who was also dressed in “dark clothing.” Going on that small description that could have fit any number of black men in the city who hadn’t chosen white or pastel clothing that day, police attempted to stop and question him. Out of fear, Warren ran.
Police gave chase and were able to apprehend Warren for meeting a vague description. Although they found no illegal contraband, drugs, or anything else tying Warren to the break-in that led to the chase, they did find an unregistered gun in a nearby yard. Police decided it must be Warren’s and charged him. Warren was convicted by a local court.
After appealing the conviction and reaching the state’s supreme court, the conviction was overturned, as the court decided that the decision to stop Warren based on a vague description of any number of black men was unfounded. Without any further details that could have identified the person involved, the description the police used to justify chasing Warren down “contribute[d] nothing to the officers’ ability to distinguish the defendant from any other black male’ wearing dark clothes and a ‘hoodie’ in Roxbury.”
Considering the case that police made, that Warren’s decision to flee surely meant he was guilty, the court stated that:
‘We do not eliminate flight as a factor in the reasonable suspicion analysis whenever a black male is the subject of an investigatory stop. However, in such circumstances, flight is not necessarily probative of a suspect’s state of mind or consciousness of guilt. Rather, 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.’
In other words, while “flight” can still be used as a reason to be considered “suspicious” by police officers, it cannot be used as the sole basis in assuming guilt, as it was in the case of Jimmy Warren.
Statistics used by the court to prove that black men are more often stopped by police came from a 2014 report by the ACLU that showed that while only 24 percent of Boston’s population are African-American, 63 percent of police stops are of black men. The wildly disproportionate number makes flight from police “reasonable” in the eyes of the court.
Legal director of the Massachusetts ACLU, Matthew Segal, praised the court’s decision.
‘The state’s highest court, in talking about people of color, it’s saying that their lives matter and under the law, their views matter,. The reason that’s significant is that all the time in police-civilian encounters there are disputes about what is suspicious and what is not suspicious. So this is an opinion that looks at those encounters through the eyes of a black man who might justifiably be concerned that he will be the victim of profiling.’
It’s a decision that was long overdue, but it was also the right decision and one desperately needed in addressing police violence and bias against citizens of color in America.
For more on the ACLU’s report on “stop and frisk” laws, see video below:
Featured image screengrab via YouTube