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Massachusetts SJC finds race and age relevant to Seizure analysis under the Constitution in Commonwealth v. Tykorie Evelyn decision

On the same day as the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decided, Commonwealth v. Long, lowering the burden for a defendant to prove a stop was the result of racial profiling, the SJC also released a decision involving race and police interactions with a young black male in the context of a seizure rather than a motor vehicle stop.  The case of Commonwealth v. Tykorie Evelyn involves a street encounter between the police and a young black male who the police suspected was involved in a shooting.  While the SJC ruled against the defendant Evelyn, the SJC indicated that past and current social realties regarding how young black males perceive the police should factor into how Court analysis Constitutional questions such as whether someone has been seized by the police.  

The Evelyn case involved the following circumstances:  

What Happen in the case of Tykorie Evelyn?  

Thirteen minutes after a shooting, two police officers came upon the defendant walking on the sidewalk. They drove along side him for one hundred yards when he refused to speak to them.  After one officer got out of the car, the defendant ran away.  The officers chased the defendant, stopped and arrested him; on the path he was running a firearm was found.  He was charged with first degree murder.  

The defendant filed a motion to suppress arguing that at the moment the officers opened the car door, the defendant was seized and all evidence should be suppressed.  Under the Massachusetts Supreme Court’s interpretation of Article 14, a seizure can occur without the individual submitting to the authority of the police; unlike under the 4th Amendment to the Federal Constitution which would hold that someone who runs is not seized.  

The defendant in the case was a young black male 17 years old.  He argued before the SJC that his race and age should be considered in the totality of circumstances as to whether he was seized.  The SJC agreed that in future cases race and age should be considered in assessing whether an individual is seizure under Article 14 of the Massachusetts Constitution.  

The SJC found that the defendant was seized when the officers opened the door but found that the motion judge property denied the motion relying on his experience with firearms in concluding there was reasonable suspicion for the seizure.  

The SJC held that going forward the age and race of a juvenile suspect will be relevant to the totality of circumstances as to whether there was seizure under Article 14 of the Declaration of Rights.  

The officers believed that as the defendant was walking down the street he had a firearm on him; they came up along side of him and asked if they could speak to him; he did not respond so the officer asked him if he knew anything about a shooting in the area; the officers claimed that the defendant picked up his pace and walked to shield his body from the gun. When the officers got out of the car the defendant ran.  

The Defense Lawyers argued that the Police Officers were improperly being allowed to testify as Experts

The defendant called an expert to testify that officers are no better than lay people in looking at a person to determine if they are carrying a firearm.  The defendant presented this testimony to persuade the judge to discredit and or exclude from evidence the testimony that the officers believed the defendant was concealing a firearm.  

The expert further testified that police officers are more likely to view black males as threats because of implicit bias; this implicit bias may cause a young black male to become more nervous and act different in reaction to this knowledge. 

The Massachusetts SJC emphasized that a seizure under Article 14 occurs when an officer through words or conduct objectively communicates that the officer would coerce an individual to stay.  

How is Age Relevant to whether a person is seized or in Custody under the Constitution?

The United States Supreme Court included age of the suspect in its Miranda analysis for the purposes of determining Custody.  The United States Supreme Court held that so long as the child’s age was known to the officer at the time of questioning or would have been objectively apparent to a reasonable police officer, its inclusion in custody analysis is consistent with the objective nature of the test.  

The SJC concluded that age is relevant under an Article 14 seizure analysis.  However, the SJC did not consider the defendant’s age because they held that the officer could not tell that he was 17 based on how he appeared and looked.  

The SJC looked at how race factors into a seizure analysis.  The Court acknowledged that past and present of policing inform how racial minorities interact with the police. 

The SJC ruled against the defendant but its decision is an important step forward with the Court adding to its Constitutional analysis common social facts about how minorities perceive the police

The SJC found reasonable suspension based on the proximity of the defendant to the shooting and the indication that he was carrying a firearm.  The SJC held that proximity to a crime informs the reasonable suspicion analysis; further, the SJC found the nature of the crime that it left a victim in critical condition was relevant to reasonable suspicion analysis because there was an issue of public safety. 

The defendant argued that the officers testimony that they believe the defendant was carrying a firearm was impermissible expert testimony under Daubert/Lanigan. The SJC found that the motion judge properly relied on the officers testimony in denying the motion.  

The SJC held that it discounted the weight of nervousness and evasive behavior in the analysis as this can be a common sign of how a black male innocently may act in response to the police.  The SJC also discounted the fact that it was a high crime area in its reasonable suspicion analysis.  

The SJC held that it was a close question but that based on the proximity to the shooting and indication that he might be carrying a firearm, the court found reasonable suspicion.  The decision of the Court provided important language to further protect the rights of minorities from being subject of seizures based on inherent racial biases.  

The Evelyn decision can be found on the Justia website.  

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