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Massachusetts SJC hears timely cases about race in America after the death of George Floyd

The Tragic death of George Floyd and the protests that have followed shine a new light on two major Massachusetts Supreme Court cases involving Race and how our Constitution is going to be interpreted.

The tragic death of George Floyd involves shocking actions that are likely to result in murder charges being filed against the officers involved. As a result of this injustice, protests are taking place in major cities with a major incident of violence in Minneapolis as a police station was set on fire.

From what I have seen of the video, it does not appear that Floyd was any type of threat to the officers.  There was simply no justification for having a knee to his neck; This method of restraining someone is not taught in police trainings and other police officers have voiced their disapproval of the officers’ actions.  From what we know, the video evidence presents an overwhelming case of police brutality with no justification.

The incident reveals the deep roots that racism still has in the United States and in some police departments.  While I do not believe the actions of those officers represent the majority of police officers, there is still a pervasive issue of racism in police departments across the United States.

Another recent case reported by CNN’s Theresa Waldrop and Alisha Ebrahimiji further sheds lights on this issue.  In Midland, Texas, Tye Anders was stooped for allegedly driving erratically; however, no erratic driving was captured on police cruiser video.  The only driving infraction was him rolling through a stop sign.  He refused to get out of the car after being ordered to exit the car.  The officer’s cruiser video shows that the officers were still in the car when they ordered him out; in Massachusetts, officers are not permitted to issue an exit order on a routine traffic stop.  When he refused to get out, the officers ordered him out at gun point.  This lead to a confrontation where his 90 year old grandmother attempted to diffuse the situation and fell during the encounter.

The Massachusetts SJC has two case before it dealing with how police officers treat Black Americans.  

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has two cases before it that address many of these issues involving racism and equal treatment under the law.  The First is Commonwealth v. Edward Long, SJC-12868; this case concerns the issue of the racial disparity in traffic stops where a disproportionate number of black men are stopped for minor traffic offenses.

The cases presents compelling statistical data showing that the stop of the defendant was based on race.  The Long case asks the Massachusetts SJC to review the standard of what type of proof a defendant must show to establish that police action was done in violation of the Equal Protection Clause.  The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court first announced the standard in a case called Commonwealth v. Lora, 451 Mass. 425 (2008), where the Court held that both the Fourteenth Amendment and Article 1 Section 10 of our Constitution prohibit discriminatory application of impartial laws.

The Long case likely will require police department to maintain statistical data showing the racial percentage of an officer’s traffic stops.  At oral argument, this record keeping requirement was discussed and the SJC seemed to indicate that the presumption of regularity that the stop was not based on race, may be lost if a department does not keep statistical data.  The Long case gives the Court an opportunity to give meaningful Constitutional protections to individuals selectively stopped based on race and interpret the Constitution in a way that reflects this unequal enforcement of the law.

The second case to address the issue of Race and Constitutional protections is Commonwealth v. Evelyn, SJC-12808.  This case involves a young black male running from the police.  This case addresses the issue of when a seizure occurs under the Constitution.

The defendant ran and indicated he did not want to speak to the police.  Under the Massachusetts Constitution, a seizure occurs when there is a show of authority to communicate to a reasonable defendant that they are not free to leave.  The timing of when the seizure occurs is critical to whether there is a Constitutional violation.  The defense lawyers in the Evelyn case are asking the Court to consider the defendant’s age and race in interpreting whether a constitutional violation occurred.  The SJC is being asked to consider the reality of how black males are treated by the police when the Court interprets the Constitution.

These cases involving the intersection of the Race and Constitutional issues are very timely in light of recent events with the death of George Floyd.     The Massachusetts SJC should use these decisions to interpret the Constitution in a way that gives meaning to the phrase Equal Protection under the law and provides clear guidance to police departments to help them avoid conscious or unconscious racial bias in enforcing criminal laws.

For further reading,

You can listen to the oral arguments in the Evelyn case on the Suffolk University School of Law Website.  

You can find the oral arguments in Commonwealth v. Edward Long case here.  

For further reading about the Long case you can visit my blog on this case. 

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You can reach Attorney DelSignore directly at 781-686-5924.





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