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Mass. High Court Allows Challenges To Police Stops On Racial Grounds

Massachusetts' highest court this week issued a ruling that allows people leeway to challenge police stops even if law enforcement can articulate some reasonable suspicion for their probe, Reuters reports. The May 15 ruling from the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court establishes that both the Massachusetts and U.S. Constitution guarantee a right to be free from unreasonable police intrusion separate and apart from the right to be free from racism and other discrimination. For example, drivers can challenge investigations if they have statistics or other evidence showing that police engaged in racial profiling, and then tailed their car until the officer observed a traffic infraction. Pedestrians who arouse police suspicion without any apparent reason could also challenge a stop-and-frisk and resulting drug possession charge if they have evidence they were actually targeted due to their race. State officials had argued that courts should reject claims that a person’s equal protection rights granted by the 14th Amendment were violated if police can show that their search-or-seizure was reasonable under the 4th Amendment.


The ruling includes some important limitations, as demonstrated by the mixed result for Robinson-Van Rader, a young Black man indicted for discharging a firearm and related gun offenses. Robinson-Van Rader, 18 at the time, and an unnamed minor were arrested by officers with the Boston Police Department’s Youth Violence Strike Force after reports of shots fired. People who called 911 reported two Black males leaving the area on bikes. There were credible eyewitness reports virtually tracking the suspected shooters from the scene, but police relied on an entirely generic description that fit thousands of Black men and boys in Boston. Robinson-Van Rader's motion to suppress evidence was ultimately dismissed. The court held that the search and arrest were supported by reasonable suspicion and that Robinson-Van Rader couldn’t show he was targeted by race. However, under the law, one can “reasonably” provoke police investigation by driving a certain model of vehicle or simply being present in a so-called “high-crime” area. Other stops have been upheld based on a person's sagging pants, and for staring or glancing at police officers. The Massachusetts high court’s ruling addresses those problems by challenging patterns that the justices referred to as “selective enforcement” and “selective prosecution.”

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