WBUR, Boston - Black men who try to avoid an encounter with Boston police by fleeing may have a legitimate reason to do so — and should not be deemed suspicious — according to a ruling by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.
Citing Boston police data and a 2014 report by the ACLU of Massachusetts that found blacks were disproportionately stopped by the city's police, the state’s highest court threw out the gun conviction of Jimmy Warren.
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 and later convicted.
In its ruling, the court made two major findings: The justices said police didn’t have the right to stop Warren in the first place, and the fact that he ran away shouldn’t be used against him.
On the first point, the court said the description of the break-in suspects’ clothing was “vague,” making it impossible for police to “reasonably and rationally” target Warren or any other black man wearing dark clothing as a suspect. The court said the “ubiquitous” clothing description and the officer’s "hunch" wasn’t enough to justify the stop.
"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."
On the second point, the court noted that state law gives individuals the right to not speak to police and even walk away if they aren’t charged with anything. The court said when an individual does flee, the action doesn't necessarily mean the person is guilty. And when it comes to black men, the BPD and ACLU reports “documenting a pattern of racial profiling of black males in the city of Boston” must be taken into consideration, the court said.
"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."