Black men who run from the police in Boston may have good reason to do so, according to a ruling by the state’s highest court that is being applauded by civil right advocates and criticized by law enforcement.
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court on Tuesday overturned the 2011 conviction of a Boston man who had been arrested for unlawful possession of a firearm after he fled from police searching for three burglary suspects.
In its ruling, the court noted that a disproportionate number of black men are stopped by Boston police and that a black person could be justified in fleeing from an officer to avoid being subjected to racial profiling.
“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," the court wrote in its opinion.
The ruling vacated the conviction of Jimmy Warren, who was arrested on Dec. 18, 2011, when police were investigating a burglary in Roxbury. Officers were looking for three black men, one wearing a red hoodie and another wearing dark clothing, according to court records.
An officer spotted Warren and another man both wearing dark clothing walking in a park. When the officer shouted to them, they fled.
The officer caught up with Warren and spotted a Walther .22 caliber firearm in a nearby front yard. When asked if he had a license to carry the weapon, Warren replied that he did not. He was charged and later convicted with unlawful possession of a firearm.
In overturning the conviction, the court cited a 2014 report by the ACLU of Massachusetts that found Boston police officers were more likely to conduct "field interrogation observations" or FIOs with people of color, as well as Boston city police data on FIOs.
The justices determined that police "lacked reasonable suspicion" to stop Warren and that the fact that he fled should not be used against him.
"With only this vague description, it was simply not possible for the police reasonably and rationally to target the defendant or any other black male wearing dark clothing as a suspect in the crime,” the justices wrote.
The justices noted that a person running away from police is suspicious in "appropriate circumstances." They add, however, that state law protects a person's right not to speak to a police officer and even to walk away from an officer. That right might certainly be exercised by a black person attempting to avoid a police encounter motivated by racial profiling, the justices suggested.
"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," the court’s opinion reads.
The court’s ruling is "truly powerful and important," said Matthew Segal, legal director at the ACLU of Massachusetts.
If courts say that evading the police in and of itself is suspicious, then that would undermine the constitutional right to walk away, Segal said. Everyone has a right to say no to a police stop unless the police have "reasonable suspicion."
ACLU data compiled from 2007 to 2010 shows that 63 percent of Boston police and civilian interactions were with blacks, though they made up less than a quarter of the city's population at that time.
The Boston Police Department labeled the court’s decision "very troubling."
"For it to consider studies that were never introduced into evidence or offered into the record is concerning,” the department said in a news release. “At the very least the court should have heard from the experts who compiled and analyzed the data."
Boston Police Commissioner William Evans told reporters that the heavy reliance on the ACLU report was "out of context."
"I’m a little disappointed that they relied heavily on a report that didn’t take into context who was stopped and why" Evans told reporters, according to WBUR. "That report clearly shows that we were targeting the individuals that were driving violence in the city and the hot spots."
The department's report, also cited in the ruling, and also looking at data between 2007 and 2010, found that black people were 8 percent more likely to be stopped repeatedly and 12 percent more likely to be frisked and searched "when controlling for other factors like criminal history and gang membership in violent crime areas."
Segal said that the data continues to show year after year—even after the period of 60 percent highlighted in the ACLU's report—that police-civilian encounters in Boston have targeted black people.
"[The ACLU is] excited [about the ruling] because we worked for so many years to bring the data to light," Segal said, "but the more important thing is that there is this powerful social movement in the country right now, Black Lives Matter, and this [ruling] is a sign that there is a role for courts to play, too, in ensuring that black lives matter."