A Dallas criminal lawyer reports a decision by Massachusetts highest court on police stops made headlines due to its holding about black men running from police.
According to Dallas criminal lawyer John Helms many criminal cases begin with a police stop, which is any time when an officer pulls over a car or asks a person on foot to stop and answer questions. During a stop, the police can gather evidence for criminal charges, such as signs that a driver is intoxicated for a DWI case, or the smell of marijuana for a drug case. After a stop, the police will look for probable cause and the right circumstances to justify a search of a person (a pat down), or a car. To justify a stop, though, the police must have “reasonable suspicion” that the person being stopped has committed a particular crime.
A recent decision from Massachusetts’ highest court about police stops made national headlines because of its holding about black men running from the police. Did the court hold that it is OK to run from the police? The short answer says criminal defense attorney Helms is, “Not quite.”
In Commonwealth v. Warren, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts held that the mere fact that a person runs from the police, without more, does not give the police reasonable suspicion to stop the person. What was perhaps more notable was that the court went on to discuss the fact that black men in the Boston area are disproportionately subject to stops and that a black man might therefore run from the police to avoid being racially profiled.
Here is what happened. The police were called to a reported breaking and entering of a house. The victims described three suspects as being black men. One was wearing a red hoodie, one was wearing a dark hoodie, and the other was wearing dark clothing. They had taken a backpack and run away. About thirty minutes after the break-in, a police officer spotted two black men walking near a park. Both wore dark clothing, and one had on a hoodie. The police officer yelled to them, “Hey guys wait a minute!” The two men made eye contact and then jogged into the park. The officer radioed to other officers on the other side of the park who encountered the two men walking. These officers yelled toward the two men. One turned and ran back into the park. The officers ordered him to stop and ran after him. He was caught, and he was found to have a concealed handgun for which he did not have a permit. He was charged with that crime and convicted at trial. The other man was not charged with anything, and neither was he linked to the breaking and entering.
The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts reversed the conviction because the police did not have reasonable suspicion that he had committed a particular crime, which was necessary for the police to stop him. Therefore, the stop was illegal, and the gun found during the stop could not be used as evidence. Without the gun, the conviction could not stand.
In explaining its decision, the court said that the only factor that could have possibly given the police reasonable suspicion was the fact that the defendant ran from the police. The court said that the description of the clothing was too vague to identify the men as suspects in the breaking and entering. Also, there were two rather than three men, and neither had a backpack. Finally, the place where they were found was not so close to the scene of the crime, given the time since the crime, to suggest they were the culprits. That left just the running away.
The court held that running away is a factor that can be considered, along with other evidence, in determining whether there was reasonable suspicion, but running away ALONE is not enough. The court explained that Massachusetts’ law allows a citizen to ignore or walk away from the police if the police have no basis for stopping them. Therefore, a person also has the right to run away, and the court was unwilling to say that MERELY running away is enough evidence that a person committed a specific crime that the officer suspects.
Then, the court discussed recent studies showing that black men are stopped at a higher rate in the Boston area than whites and that this cannot be explained by crime statistics. The court concluded that a black man could fear being racially profiled by the police and might run away out of a belief that the police would treat him unjustly. The court was careful to say, however, that flight can never be considered just because a black man is involved. However, in these circumstances, where flight was the ONLY basis for reasonable suspicion, the possibility that the person fled to avoid racial profiling strengthened the court’s view that there was not enough evidence to find reasonable suspicion.
This case does NOT mean that it is a good idea to run from the police. Doing so could escalate a tense situation and substantially increase the possibility of a violent confrontation with the police. It also does NOT mean that flight cannot be considered by a court as consciousness of guilt. It can be, and it could tip the balance if there is other evidence to support reasonable suspicion.
Additionally, this case is not legally binding on any courts besides Massachusetts’ state courts. Courts in other states can consider it, but they are not required to follow it.
What the case does show, however, is that courts are beginning to consider the social realities that have been heavily discussed around the country in recent years.
Anyone charged with a crime involving a police stop should consult with an experienced criminal defense lawyer about whether the stop was potentially illegal. If it was, the case could be dismissed. I have had a lot of success convincing courts that police stops were illegal and that evidence from the stop should be suppressed. My knowledge of this area of the law is often vital for protecting my clients.
If you, a family member or someone you know has been charged with a crime or have been convicted and need help with an appeal in the Dallas area, contact Dallas criminal lawyer John Helms at (214) 666-8010 or fill out the online contact form. You can discuss your case, how the law may apply and your best legal options to protect your rights and freedom.