The Massachusetts Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a criminal defendant recently and in so doing redefined the meaning of reasonable suspicion for police officers.
In its analysis, the Court found that in addition to the traditional factors that courts consider when determining whether an officer had reasonable suspicion to stop a person, courts should also consider the reality in which black men live.
More specifically, the Court cited to a report done by the Boston Police Department which found that black males were disproportionately more prone to racial profiling by police including being targeted for more stops, frisks, searches and interrogations.
Because of this reality, black men fleeing from police officers may not be doing so because of guilt, but rather to avoid racial profiling by the police.
The decision, itself, came about after the conviction of Jimmy Warren for unlawful possession of a firearm after he was stopped by police in connection with a breaking and entering of a nearby home. The following are the facts leading up to the stop of the defendant:
1. Police officers received a call regarding a breaking and entering in progress
2. Police went to the home and spoke to the victims for around 12 minutes, learned that among the items stolen was a backpack and were given the following description of the subjects – three black men involved in the robbery – one wearing a “red hoodie”, one wearing a “black hoodie” and one wearing dark clothing.
3. Police spent the next 15 minutes driving in a 4 – 5 block radius of the house but found no one.
4. While returning to the police station, police saw two black males, one wearing a “black hoodie” and one wearing dark clothes walking about a mile away from the home.
5. Police had a hunch that those two men were involved so they rolled their window down to ask them some questions at which time both men jogged into a park.
6. Two additional police officers were waiting for the two men as they walked out of the park. The officers addressed the men and the defendant ran back into the park. One of the officers caught him behind a home and he was arrested. There was no contraband on him at the time of the arrest.
7. A firearm was located in the front of the home where he was arrested.
Prior to his trial, Mr. Warren had asked the court to suppress the firearm from being introduced as evidence, arguing that the police did not have reasonable suspicion to stop him in the first place.
The trial court denied Warren’s motion and when the defendant appealed claiming the trial court made a mistake by not suppressing the gun, the appellate court upheld the trial court’s ruling. The Massachusetts Supreme Court, however, disagreed and found that there was no reasonable suspicion for the stop so any evidence found as a result should have been suppressed and vacated the defendant’s conviction.
The trial court based its ruling that there was reasonable suspicion on 4 factors which the Massachusetts Supreme Court addressed individually;
1. The defendant and his friend matched the description of two of the three suspects. However, the Massachusetts Supreme Court found that the description given by the victim was too vague. There was no description as to height, weight, hairstyles or other physical features that would allow police to distinguish the defendant and his friend from any other black male wearing dark clothes and a hoodie.
There were also facts that would have excluded them as suspects: there were only two of them, neither was wearing a red hoodie and neither of them were carrying a backpack. The Massachusetts Supreme Court felt that given the lack of description of the suspects the vague description alone was not enough to give the officers reasonable suspicion to stop the defendant and his friend in the first place.
2. Warren was stopped in close proximity in location and time to the home that was burglarized. However, the Massachusetts Supreme court chalked this up to a random occurrence rather than reasonable suspicion.
The Court explained that the defendant and his friend were stopped 30 minutes after the breaking and entering occurred and one mile from the house. Given the gap in time, the defendant could have walked 2 miles away from the house. Additionally, one of the officers testified that the defendant would have reached the location he was first stopped well before the time he was actually stopped. The Court found that the fact they were walking a mile from the crime 30 minutes later did not lend itself to reasonable suspicion.
3. Defendant and his friend were the only ones in the street. But the Massachusetts Supreme Court provided another explanation as to why no other suspects were on the street. The Court explained that following the 12 minute conversation with the victims, the police only searched a 4-5 block radius and found no one.
However, during the 12 minute conversation the suspects could have fled outside that radius so it was not unlikely for a search in that area to result in no suspects. The presence of the defendant and his friend further away from the house, within a time frame that was inconsistent from the time they would have fled from the house as explained in the discussion regarding proximity, was not reasonable suspicion.
4. Defendant and his friend evaded contact with the police when they jogged into the park. The Court explained that individuals can choose whether they want to speak to the police and when they are not obligated to speak to an officer then flight to avoid that contact should be given little, if any, weight when determining if reasonable suspicion exists. As such, the Court found that because there was no information to lead the officers to have reasonable suspicion when they first made contact with the defendant, the defendant’s fleeing into the park did not in and of itself give rise to reasonable suspicion.
It was in this portion of the Court’s analysis where its most notable statements were made. The Massachusetts Supreme Court went on to cite a Boston Police Department report which showed that there was a pattern of racial profiling of black males in Boston which resulted in them being disproportionately targeted for searches, frisks, stops and interrogations.
These findings provide another reason why black males would flee from the police that is unrelated to guilt. The Court added that in appropriate circumstances, courts should consider the Boston Police Departments findings when weighing flight as a factor for reasonable suspicion.
At the end of their analysis, the Massachusetts Supreme Court found that the police had too little information to support that they had reasonable suspicion that defendant and his friend were involved with the breaking and entering. As a result, any firearms that were found subsequent to the officers chasing him should have been suppressed.