The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court said Black men may be trying to “avoid the recurring indignity of being racially profiled.”
By Sheryl Estrada
A ruling by The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court indicated when a Black man flees from police he might not be hiding criminal activity, but rather reacting to increased incidents of racial profiling.
Last week, the state’s high court vacated the conviction of Jimmy Warren, who is Black. It determined that Boston police had “lacked reasonable suspicion for the investigatory stop” of Warren in 2011 after seeing him and another Black man walking in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood approximately 30 minutes after they received a report of a home break-in.
The burglary victims described the suspects to Officer Luis Anjos as three Black men two were wearing “the ubiquitous and non-descriptive ‘dark clothing,'” “one wearing a ‘red hoodie'” and one was carrying a backpack, according to the high court.
While searching for the perpetrators, Anjos saw Warren and another man walking near a park in close proximity to where the crime was committed. They both ran when he approached them. A responding police officer, Christopher R. Carr, eventually caught up with Warren in the backyard of a house and yelled for him to get down and drew his weapon.
After a struggle, Carr arrested Warren. Warren was searched and no contraband was found on him. But in a nearby yard, police recovered an unlicensed .22 caliber firearm. Warren told the officer that he did not have a license to carry a firearm. He was later convicted of unlawful possession. But he was never charged with a break-in.
Warren filed a motion to suppress the firearm and statements made after his arrest. His defense argued that police lacked reasonable suspicion for the stop, but the judge who heard the motion denied it. The judge ruled that at the time of the stop, the police had reasonable suspicion that he was one of the perpetrators. Warren appealed, claiming error in the denial of the motion to suppress.
Weighing the factors the police had considered, including the suspect’s description, the proximity to the crime and the fact that Warren ran from the officers, the justices threw out his conviction on September 20.
The high court stated police didn’t have the right to stop Warren in the first place because the victim had given a very “vague description.”
“If anything, the victim’s description tended to exclude the defendant as a suspect: he was one of two men, not three; he was not wearing a red ‘hoodie’; and, neither he nor his companion was carrying a backpack,” the justices said. “Based solely on this description, Anjos had nothing more than a hunch that the defendant might have been involved in the crime.”
In regard to Warren running away from officers, the court cited a 2014 report by the ACLU of Massachusetts, titled “Black, Brown and Targeted,” containing data on Boston Police Department street encounters from 2007-10. It found the city’s police disproportionately stopped Blacks.
“The finding that Black males in Boston are disproportionately and repeatedly targeted for FIO encounters suggests a reason for flight totally unrelated to consciousness of guilt,” Massachusetts highest court said. “Such an individual, when approached bythe 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.”
The justices also noted the following:
“Unless reasonable suspicion for a threshold inquiry already exists, our law guards a person’s freedom to speak or not to speak to a police officer. A person also may choose to walkaway, avoiding altogether any contact with police.”
This month, a police body camera pilot program, long pushed by local activists, was launched in Boston.