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State High Court Sends A Clear Message: Black Lives Do Matter

The SJC's decision is historic, writes Carol Rose, both as a matter of law and as a matter of justice. (Bethany Legg/Unsplash)
The SJC's decision is historic, writes Carol Rose, both as a matter of law and as a matter of justice. (Bethany Legg/Unsplash)
This article is more than 4 years old.

In a victory for justice, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court this week unanimously ruled that black people who walk away from police officers may be justified in trying to avoid the “recurring indignity of being racially profiled.”

The decision is historic, both as a matter of law and as a matter of justice. It could protect people in Massachusetts from undue police violence, and influence court decisions across the nation.

In theory, all of us have the right to “not engage” with law enforcement if police officers do not have reasonable suspicion to stop us. The problem is that, too often, when a person refuses to engage, the police may decide that such a refusal is, itself, suspicious behavior. That logic effectively entraps people into engaging with police — or it did, until this ruling.

Legally, the opinion addressed the question of how judges should interpret a defendant’s actions when they choose not to interact with a police officer. Does such refusal indicate “consciousness of guilt”? If not, and a judge deems that the lack of interaction is an innocent act, then prosecutors cannot use such a refusal against a defendant.

The SJC ruling went even further, pointing to valid reasons that black men might refuse to interact with the police. The court cited both a 2015 Boston Police Department-commissioned study and a 2014 ACLU report, based on the same data. Both studies explored racial disparities in BPD “Field, Interrogation and Observation (FIO) encounters” — more commonly referred to as “stop and frisk.”

Rarely has the law so closely reflected reality.

The data showed that black people during that period were subject to more than 63 percent of police-civilian encounters, although they comprise less than a quarter of the city’s population. Even when controlling for gang membership and arrests, the data showed that people in communities of color were being treated more harshly by the police than identical communities of white people.

Not surprisingly, Boston Police Commissioner Bill Evans didn’t like those findings. He reportedly said that the ACLU report was “biased” against the police department, and criticized the court for relying on it. For the record, the ACLU report relied on the same data that was used by the BPD-commissioned researchers in their report. Moreover, recent data from the BPD (released only in response to an ACLU lawsuit) shows that racial disparities in BPD policing persist, further supporting the Supreme Judicial Court’s ruling.

Rarely has the law so closely reflected reality. Here’s an excerpt from the opinion, by Justice Geraldine Hines, instructing judges to consider racial disparities in policing as a factor in their decisions:

“Rather, 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. 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.”

Simply put: The state’s highest court, in talking about people of color, has said that Black Lives Matter.

Related:

Carol Rose Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Carol Rose is a lawyer, journalist and executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts.

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