In an important decision issued today, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court unanimously ruled Boston police officers illegally stopped and searched a black man who was in the general vicinity of a crime scene in 2011. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Warren.
On December 18, 2011, Boston police received a report of a breaking and entering into a residence in Roxbury. The police went to the scene and spoke to a teenager who said he saw an intruder in his bedroom and two accomplices outside his window. The victim described the person in his room as a black male wearing a red hoodie. The two men outside his window were also black men, one of whom was wearing a black hoodie and the other was wearing dark clothing. The victim realized his backpack, his computer, and several baseball hats were missing from his room. The victim was not able to determine the direction in which the men had fled. One of the investigating officers began driving around the neighborhood looking for the suspects. There were very few pedestrians on the street because of the cold weather. However, approximately 25 minutes after the housebreak, the cop saw two black men wearing dark clothing walking about a mile away from the victim’s home. Neither of the men was carrying a backpack. The cop had a hunch the men might have been involved in the housebreak so he asked them to “wait a minute.” The two men, one of whom was about to become the defendant in this case, jogged away. The cop radioed his colleagues that two men matching the descriptions provided by the victim were in the area. Shortly thereafter, another cop saw the defendant and his companion leaving a park. The men’s hands were not in their pockets and it did not appear they had any bulky objects in their clothes. The officer called out to the men and the defendant began to run away. The officer ordered him to stop and began to pursue him. The defendant ran to a nearby yard where he surrendered. The police found a gun in the yard and charged the defendant with possessing it without a license. Once in court, the defendant filed a motion to suppress, arguing the cops did not have the legal authority to order him to stop. A district court judge denied his motion and a divided panel of the Appeals Court affirmed. The Supreme Judicial Court agreed to review the case and reversed the denial of the motion to suppress.
In order for a police officer to order an individual to stop moving, the officer must have reasonable suspicion that the individual has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a crime. The question in this case is whether the cops reasonably suspected the defendant was involved in breaking into the victim’s house. The SJC pointed out that the descriptions of the men provided by the suspect were not particularly helpful. Apart from describing them as black, the victim did not offer any specifics (such as hairstyles, facial features, weight, height, skin tone, or any other physical characteristics). Any black male in Roxbury who happened to be wearing dark clothes or a red or black hoodie would have matched the victim’s descriptions. When the police came upon the defendant, he was in a group of two (not three) men, he was not wearing a hoodie, and neither he nor his friend was carrying a backpack. Thus, the descriptions of the suspects alone were unhelpful in this case. The Court concluded the men who committed the housebreak could have traveled as far as two miles during the 25 minutes after the crime had been committed. Therefore, the suspects could have been anywhere in an area that comprised more than 12 square miles. While flight from the police is a factor that may sometimes be considered in determining whether an officer reasonably suspects someone of committing a crime, flight alone is not enough to justify a stop. After all, everybody has the absolute right to refuse to speak to the police. Further, a recent study by the Boston Police Department proved that black men are racially profiled in the city by the police. The Court said when a black man runs from the cops in Boston, it might be to avoid the “recurring indignity of being racially profiled” rather than to hide his involvement in a criminal act.
For all of these reasons, the Court concluded the police did not have reasonable suspicion to stop the defendant, and the gun that was thereafter discovered and attributed to him should have been suppressed.