The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts has lowered the burden for proving a police traffic stop was racially motivated, and acknowledged that the court's previous solution for ferreting out racial bias by police wasn't working.
In the far-reaching decision, the high court said people who are stopped by police and charged with a crime can now hold up aspects of the stop — from how long police followed them to how the officer handles the stop — to help make their case. The old standard required a statistical analysis to prove racial bias by an officer.
Without a workable remedy, "the right of drivers to be free from racial profiling will remain illusory," Justice Frank Gaziano wrote in the opinion, issued Thursday.
"The discriminatory enforcement of traffic laws is not a minor annoyance to those who are racially profiled," he wrote. "To the contrary, these discriminatory practices cause great harm."
Only one person had successfully suppressed evidence in a case because of racial bias in the 12 years since the previous decision established the statistics-based standard. Defense attorneys say that's not for lack of trying.
The court blamed it on the lack of available police data, and laid blame on the state legislature for not passing a law requiring it.
“We urge the legislature to require the collection and analysis of officer-specific data," Gaziano wrote. "This type of data collection would help protect drivers from racially discriminatory traffic stops, and also would protect police officers who do not engage in such discriminatory stops."
Legislative leaders are debating a compromise police reform bill. The Senate version of the bill would mandate all police departments to collect data about each traffic stop, while the House bill says nothing about data.
"The discriminatory enforcement of traffic laws is not a minor annoyance to those who are racially profiled. To the contrary, these discriminatory practices cause great harm."Justice Frank Gaziano
Matthew Segal, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, said the legislature, governor and police departments "forced the court's hand" by not fixing the problem of not having publicly available police data.
"We have more than one branch of government in this commonwealth, and it should not fall to the court to do everything," he said. "We need the other branches of government in this state to step up and do their job."
The decision comes a week after a SJC-commissioned study found that Black and Latino people were more likely to be locked up for drugs and weapons offenses and get longer sentences than white people.
The SJC decision, which centered on the traffic stop of a Black man named Edward Long, was one of three released Thursday that addressed the police stops of Black teenagers and men.
In one, where a Black teen ran from Boston police and was charged with murder after a gun was found near him, the court ruled the stop was lawful. But they noted that police witnessing nervous and evasive behavior isn't enough to stop someone who is Black, because of a pattern of racial profiling by police.
"Just as an innocent African-American male might flee in order to avoid the danger or indignity of a police stop, the fear of such an encounter might lead an African-American male to be nervous or evasive in his dealings with police officers," wrote Gaziano, who also authored that opinion.
In the third decision, the court ruled that a Black man stopped by Framingham police and allegedly beaten by the officers can pursue a civil suit against the police for part of the encounter, even though a jury convicted him of some charges related to the stop.
Chauncey Wood, who authored a friend of the court brief on behalf of the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said the court has continued to show a willingness to find a practical solution to deal with racial injustice.
"I'm excited that the court is really wrestling with, on a fundamental level, how to address a profound problem in our society — like racism — in an effective, practical way," he said. "I think everybody on the court recognizes that the goal is an effective, practical solution to this problem that eliminates, as much as possible, racial profiling in traffic enforcement."
The Long decision centered on a traffic stop made by Boston police's gang unit in 2017. Long, who is Black, was driving his girlfriend's Mercedes that morning in Dorchester when the officers saw him drive by. Long was driving lawfully, but the officers ran the license plate and saw the car didn't have an inspection sticker.
They stopped Long and discovered he didn't have a driver's license, and had two default warrants for operating without a license and failure to identify himself. The officers arrested him and called for a tow truck to take the car. They found an unlicensed gun when they searched the vehicle in anticipation of the tow.
To prove the stop was racially biased, Long's court-appointed lawyer, John P. Warren, hired a statistician to analyze what are known as Field Interrogation Stops. Over a seven year period, 80% of the drivers stopped by the two officers who arrested Long were Black.
In the decision Thursday, the SJC wrote that Long proved racial bias — even under the old standard. But they also acknowledged that current burden was too high.
Now, they wrote, judges should look at the circumstance of the stop. How long did the officer follow the car? Is this officer assigned to patrol, or another unit that doesn't typically make traffic stops? Did the officer keep questioning the driver even after they provided their license and registration? Do the police department policies allow unmarked vehicles to make routine traffic stops?
"The truth is that someone who looks like me — I'm white — has a different experience when they're driving as compared to someone who looks like Mr. Long, who's Black," Warren said.
But going into court to prove that was next to impossible.
"This [decision] is going to enable other defendants to actually be able to raise these claims and challenge stops that are made on the basis of race," Warren said.
Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins, whose office prosecuted the two Boston cases and whose office argued against the appeal, said in a statement that the decisions reflect the legal system's "ability to evolve and adapt" its understanding of racial disparities through the entire legal system.
"With these decisions, the public is seeing that the appellate process is one avenue available to bring about changes within the system, as occurred here," she said. "I want to thank the SJC justices for their thoughtful consideration and progressive analysis of these important issues."
A Boston police spokesperson said the department needed time to review the ruling before commenting.
The late Chief Justice Ralph Gants, who died unexpectedly this week and has been credited with pursuing racial justice through the court, wrote a concurring opinion in the Long case. It's the unanimous view of the court, he wrote, that its prohibition against racial profiling must be given teeth.