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Massachusetts SJC decision may reduce racial profiling in traffic stops as it lowers the burden to show racial motivation for the stop

The Massachusetts Supreme Court decided the case of Commonwealth v. Edward Long today.  The decision lowers the burden to prove racial profiling in traffic stops.  The decision is very important because it will help eliminate racial profiling in traffic stops and move our country toward greater racial equality.

The case of Edward Long involved a young black male being stopped for not having a proper inspection sticker on the car he was in.  Once he was stopped for the traffic infraction, officers discovered he had a warrant, searched the car and found a hand gun.  Long moved to suppress the evidence of the hand gun, arguing that he was stopped based on his race in violation of the Equal Protection Clause.  During the Motion to Suppress hearing, he presented a compelling statistical case of racial disparity in traffic stops.

The motion judge denied the motion despite the overwhelming statistical evidence he presented.  The Massachusetts SJC found that the standard previously used by the Court to prove racial bias in traffic stops imposed too high a burden on defendants, making Equal Protection of the law an illusory concept.

Evidentiary burdens and expense of meeting this burden undermined the goal of Equal Protection of the Law

The SJC recognized that the data is clear that drivers of color are stopped at a disproportionately high rate, but that there exists a problem producing the evidence to show a discriminatory intent.  The SJC noted that traffic stops are usually the first encounter between the officer and the person stopped, the interaction itself will generally provide little direct evidence of the officer’s motivations and the fact that most people commit traffic infractions leaves officers a wide discretion in enforcing the law.

The SJC indicated that when it decided Commonwealth v. Lora, 451 Mass. 425 (2008),the Court contemplated that statistical evidence would be available for defendant to show a racial bias in traffic stops. The SJC stated that this data has not been kept by police departments and that its legal standard was too high considering the lack of evidence from police departments.  The Long Decision will likely compel police departments to keep this data and install body camera to rebut claims of a racial] bias in traffic stops.

Revised Test to show Racial motivation for a Traffic Stop:

  1.  The defendant raises a reasonable inference of racial profiling through a motion to suppress;
  2. The Motion should describe all the circumstances of the traffic stop that support a reasonable inference that the decision to make the stop was motivated by race;
  3. The defendant does not have to submit admissible evidence; rather the motion must point to specific facts about the stop that support such an inference.
  4. These facts can come from a variety of sources:  statements by the defendant, other witnesses, the defendant’s own investigation, evidence obtained during discovery, and other relevant issues.

If the defendant’s motion establishes such an inference, the defendant is entitled to a hearing; at the hearing, the Commonwealth would bear the burden of rebutting the inference.  The SJC emphasized that a traffic stop motivated by race is unconstitutional even if it was motivated by a legitimate purpose in enforcing the traffic laws.

The SJC set forth when examining the totality of circumstances the judge should consider factors such as:

  1.  Patterns in enforcement action of the particular police officer;
  2. the regular duties of the officer involved in the stop;
  3. the sequence of events prior to the stop;
  4. the manner of the stop;
  5. the safety interest in enforcing the motor vehicle violation;
  6. the specific police departments policies and procedures regarding traffic stops;
  7. any factor deemed relevant by the judge.

SJC indicates defendant has a right of discovery on this issue

The SJC indicated that to prove these factors the defendant is going to have to be provided discovery from the Commonwealth.  The Court indicated that Rule 14 would be interpreted to allow this discovery.

How does the Commonwealth rebut an inference of racial motive in making a traffic stop?  

To rebut the inference of discriminatory motive, the Commonwealth would have to do more than point to a valid traffic infraction.  The SJC stated that the Commonwealth would have to grapple with all the reasonable inferences and all of the evidence the defendant presents and have to prove the stop was not motivated at least in part by race.

Justice Budd and Justice Lenk in a concurring opinion would use Article 14 to address racial profiling in traffic stops under a search and seizure analysis.  Justice Budd proposed a test asking whether the stop would have been made without any consideration of race.  Justice Budd’s test would ask whether an officer would have made the stop solely for the purpose of traffic enforcement.

While the Justices differed as to the reasoning, all agreed that the burden was too high to prove a racial bias by police officers in making a traffic stop.  Chief Justice Gant, who tragically passed away this week, emphasized the unity in the SJC holding despite the difference of opinions, writing:  it is the unanimous view of this court that the prohibition against racial profiling must be given teeth and that judges should suppress evidence where a motor vehicle stop is motivated, even in part, by the race of the driver or passenger.  This decision will have important implications, by lowering the cost and burden of proving these motions, defense lawyers will be able to present this issue to the court with a meaningful chance for a remedy. As a result of this decision, police departments will likely be more cognizant of bias and implicit bias in traffic stops and hopefully set up training to educate officers to avoid racial profiling in traffic stops. This decision should be a model for other State Courts around the country.

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