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The highest court in neighboring Massachusetts made a potentially huge statement in one of its most recent cases, ruling that – in light of the police violence against young black men – running away from officers should not weigh heavily in a cop’s determination of whether they have a reasonable suspicion to stop them.
The case, Commonwealth v. Warren, started when police responded to a robbery in Boston. The victim reported that someone had taken things out of his bedroom and run away. He described them as three black males, one wearing a red hoodie, one wearing a black one, and the last wearing “dark clothing.” One officer later saw two black men, both in dark clothing. The officer called to them, but they jogged away. Moments later, another officer found the same two, called to them again, and they ran away. Both of the men were pursued and eventually apprehended. A subsequent search of one of the men, Jimmy Warren, revealed evidence of the crime of possessing an unlicensed firearm.
In order for police to justifiably stop a suspect and talk with them, the officer needs to have at least a reasonable suspicion that the suspect played a part in a crime, or is about to play a part in a crime.
In Massachusetts, at least, running away from an approaching police officer is one of the factors that gets taken into account as to whether a cop can have a reasonable suspicion about the suspect. The idea is that no one would run away from a police officer if they didn’t have something to hide.
Jimmy Warren’s case went to trial and then got appealed all the way to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, the highest court in the state. There, the judges noted that, according to the Boston Police Department’s own statistics, black men were being racially profiled and were disproportionately targeted by police for questioning in the Boston area. In light of these facts, the judges decided that it was entirely reasonable for black men to avoid police at all costs, and that fleeing from police was, therefore, “not necessarily probative” of a suspect’s guilt or innocence.
Because the only reason why police pursued Mr. Warren was because he ran away from police, and because the evidence of his firearm violation was only found because of this pursuit, the evidence was thrown out under the exclusionary rule.
This case presents a huge change in the law of how police are permitted to search, stop, or apprehend suspects, and could be the start to a fascinating new development in the criminal law. It will be interesting to see whether the highest courts of other states will follow the lead of Massachusetts, and whether Massachusetts will stay strong in its decision to rein in police overreaching.
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