The Supreme Court of Massachusetts threw out the gun conviction of a black Roxbury man on Tuesday while ruling that black men have legitimate reasons for fleeing from the police, and it is not necessarily an indication of guilt.
The stunning ruling came five years after Jimmy Warren was chased by Boston police officers because he matched the description of a suspect who was “a black man wearing dark clothing” and arrested for illegal possession of a firearm.
WBUR News reports that police apprehended Warren on Dec. 18, 2011, when they were responding to a report of a break-in in Roxbury. Police were searching for three black men with only the description that one was wearing a red hoodie, one was wearing a black hoodie, and one was wearing “dark clothing.”
The victim of the break-in reported that thieves had stolen a computer, five baseball hats, and his backpack, according to Mass Live.
Police spotted Warren and another black man walking near a park a mile from the crime scene. Both were wearing dark clothing. Neither one was wearing a backpack or seemed to be carrying anything. When an officer approached them, Warren ran.
Police later apprehended Warren and searched him. According to WBUR, they found no contraband on him, but they recovered an unlicensed.22 caliber gun in a nearby yard. Warren was arrested, charged with unlawful possession of a firearm, and convicted.
The highest court in Massachusetts, the Supreme Judicial Court, overturned the conviction Tuesday in a unanimous ruling delivered by Justice Geraldine Hines.
A state supreme court has now ruled black men have every reason to run from the cops — and their fleeing cannot... https://t.co/TPGGgpJpCO— Wethecom (@Wethecom) September 21, 2016
The justices delivered two major findings in their ruling.
First, they ruled that the police did not have a justifiable reason to stop Warren in the first place.
They noted that the police were lacking “any information about facial features, hairstyles, skin tone, height, weight, or other physical characteristics,” and the victim’s description did not contribute anything to help officers distinguish Warren from “any other black male wearing dark clothes and a ‘hoodie’ in Roxbury.”
Secondly, they wrote that state law gives individuals the right to not answer questions or talk to police if they’re not charged with anything. They noted that fleeing is not necessarily an indication of guilt.
The justices added that when it comes to black men, the Boston Police Department and ACLU reports “documenting a pattern of racial profiling of black males in the city of Boston” must be taken into consideration.
“We do not eliminate flight as a factor in the reasonable suspicion analysis whenever a black male is the subject of an investigatory stop,” the court said. “However, in such circumstances, flight is not necessarily probative of a suspect’s state of mind or consciousness of guilt.”
The ruling further said that black males in Boston are “disproportionately and repeatedly” targeted for field interrogation and observation, and these encounters give black men a reason for flight “totally unrelated to consciousness of guilt.”
those saying #WalterScott was at fault for running... fear is justified when cops pulling over black men will shoot and tase w/o restraint— cinnabon (@eranrae) April 8, 2015
The Press Herald reports that the justices cited a report by the Boston Police Department that found black men were disproportionately stopped and frisked by Boston police between 2007 and 2010.
“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,” wrote Justice Hines.
The ruling comes as more and more people are calling attention to racial profiling and calling for an end to police shootings of black men.
This summer, a Cincinnati police officer was investigated for telling black friends and family on his Facebook page to make sure they are in a public place and comply with all demands if they are stopped by the police. Rickey Smiley reports that Officer Freddie Vincent said in his post, “they are looking for a reason to kill a black man.”
A study released last April found that police shot and killed unarmed black men at “disproportionately high rates,” and police might be biased in how they perceive threats by black men. Unarmed black men were seven times more likely to die from police gunfire than unarmed white men, according to Washington Post.
President Obama has also spoken out about the issue.
Obama commented on racial profiling and police shootings of people of color in July, when speaking at the memorial service for fallen Dallas police officers.
“Faced with this violence, we wonder if the divides of race in America can ever be bridged,” he said. “We wonder if an African-American community that feels unfairly targeted by police, and police departments that feel unfairly maligned for doing their jobs, can ever understand each other’s experience.”
The president talked then about black parents who have “the talk” with their children about how to respond if they’re stopped by police, but they still worry that if they’re stopped by a police officer, it “might end in tragedy.”
Many are seeing the Massachusetts court’s ruling as a positive step in addressing the problem and acknowledging that it exists.
“The state’s highest court, in talking about people of color, it’s saying that their lives matter and under the law, their views matter,” said Matthew Segal, the legal director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, according to The Grio.
“The reason that’s significant is that all the time in police-civilian encounters there are disputes about what is suspicious and what is not suspicious,” he told the press. “So this is an opinion that looks at those encounters through the eyes of a black man who might justifiably be concerned that he will be the victim of profiling.”
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