Yesterday, September 17, 2020, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (highest court in MA) released a landmark decision that enables victims of racial profiling to hold police officers accountable in court by suppressing evidence obtained as a result of racist decisionmaking by the police.
The case begins with an all-too familiar fact pattern: a 11:00 a.m. on a November morning, two Boston Cops, who are members of the "Youth Violence Strike Force" see a black man driving a Mercedes. Yes, driving while black, in broad daylight, even.
Predictably, these officers who apparently have nothing better to do, run the plate of the Mercedes, see that it is registered to a black woman, and that the vehicle lacks an inspection sticker. A vehicle stop quickly followed, and things went downhill from there.
In Massachusetts, like in New Hampshire, random plate checks are allowed - police can run a plate of a car they see parked or driving down the road, even if they have no reasonable suspicion or probable cause to believe that the driver is violating any law. So how can this man guilty of "driving while black" defend himself in court?
The MA Supreme Judicial Court, much like a large part of our society today, responded emphatically: Enough is enough. They held that the lower court applied too high of a standard for racial profiling stops, ruling:
"We conclude that the Superior Court judge abused his discretion in denying the motion to suppress, because the defendant produced sufficient evidence to raise a reasonable inference that the stop was racially motivated."
Any action taken by government officials or police on account of race is constitutionally suspect. A stop of a vehicle because of the race of the driver is a violation of the Equal Protection Clauses of the United States Constitution, and of Massachusetts' (and NH's) Constitution.
The challenge in suspected racial profiling cases is that the cops in this case, like the cops in essentially all such cases, denied that race played a role in their decision to stop the car. I would challenge any person reading this blog to show me a single case in the last 25 years where a police officer admitted he made a decision to stop and detain someone based on race. Nobody admits that. But history, common sense, and a mountain of evidence tells us that it happens all the time.
The Court's response to this problem is to set a more reasonable standard for litigating racial profiling stops. Here is the standard:
In order to ensure that drivers who are subjected to racially motivated traffic stops have a viable means by which to vindicate their rights to the equal protection of the laws, as provided by the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights, we today establish a revised test. A defendant seeking to suppress evidence based on a claim that a traffic stop violated principles of equal protection bears the burden of establishing, by motion, a reasonable inference that the officer's decision to initiate the stop was motivated by race or another protected class. To raise this inference, the defendant must point to specific facts from the totality of the circumstances surrounding the stop; the inference need not be based in statistical analysis. If this inference is established, the defendant is entitled to a hearing at which the Commonwealth would have the burden of rebutting the inference. Absent a successful rebuttal, any evidence derived from the stop would be suppressed.
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