This could potentially be a game changer. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has issued a ruling that could make it legal for black men to flee from police by declaring the simple fact that they left the vicinity of a cop not count as “reasonable suspicion” to pursue, detain or arrest them.
After reviewing Boston police data, and a 2014 report by the ACLU of Massachusetts, the state’s high court threw out a gun conviction that had been levied against Jimmy Warren. This is the case that may have a precedent for the same thing happening elsewhere in America.
Warren was arrested on Dec. 18th, 2011 by police who were investigating a break-in. The cops were given a description of suspects that vaguely matched Warren and another man who were walking together. When the police approached them, they ran. Warren was arrested and searched. Nothing was found on him, but an unlicensed .22 caliber gun was found in a nearby yard. He was charged and convicted for unlawful possession of a firearm.
In the recent ruling, the high court declared that the police didn’t have any right to stop Warren in the first place, and the fact he ran away is not something that can be used against him. The court said that the description of the suspects was so vague that police couldn’t “reasonably and rationally” run around targeting random black men in dark clothing as potential suspects. “Ubiquitous” clothing and a cops gut feeling are not enough to detain civilians the court indicated.
“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.”
State law also gives individuals the right to not speak to police and walk away from them if they aren’t charged with a legitimate crime.
“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.”
The court seems to be making the implication that black men have other reasons to flee from police beyond a simple guilty conscience — namely not wanting to be unlawfully harassed or shot dead for no reason.
While flight during a stop based on other reasonable suspicion is not decriminalized, if a black person sees a cop in random passing and moves actively to avoid them, that flight alone without other legitimate reasons for pursuit or arrest can’t be used as the sole reason to detain them.
With this ruling, it isn’t like we are going to see black people diving over hedges or sprinting away when a police cruiser rolls down the street. However, it is one of the first acknowledgments of a systematic and institutional racism that is inherent in many police departments across the nation.
Not only does it acknowledge the disproportionate targeting of black people by police, but it goes one step further and addresses the disproportionate use of force against them. Now, in one state at least, there’s one less “charge” that can be used to harass innocent people of color who simply don’t want to die by over policing.
While verifying it is “legal” to run from the cops, in certain circumstances, isn’t a real solution to the greater problem, if police have a problem with this they can make the apparently hard choice to actually work to change their attitudes towards people of color. With real effort, one day the court’s finding may no longer be a stain that they carry.
Featured image via freethoughtproject