The Supreme Judicial Court for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is set to decide in the coming weeks on a very controversial and important criminal case. Commonwealth v. Cuffee is set to clarify some pending arguments regarding the state of Equal Protection rights in Massachusetts. Should a defendant have to prove racial profiling before he is allowed to request the statistical data to support his claim, or should the facts of the case allow him to make a reasonable inference to request the data? Does it matter if the profiling occurred during a traffic stop or a pedestrian stop? What if the defendant does not argue an unlawful search or seizure, does it matter if the officer was motivated by race? These are some of the questions the Supreme Judicial Court is tasked with answering. You can watch a video of the oral argument here.
The defendant in this case, Mr. Kieson Cuffee, an African-American male, was arrested in 2019 and subsequently convicted after police received a ShotSpotter report. The ShotSpotter reported an alleged incident of gunfire near a local intersection. Kieson was running down the street, a few blocks away, in a fairly busy part of Springfield, then stopped and entered a local bodega. When detectives entered the area to investigate the initial report, they noticed Kieson running, possibly with something on his right side, and subsequently, stop and enter the bodega. At the time, the detectives had no indication that actual gunfire had occurred and had no description of any alleged suspects. Based on observing Kieson, they swung their unmarked car around, parked, and entered the store. There they cornered Kieson, violently attempted to detain him, and injured Kieson, all in under 30 seconds. Frightened and bleeding profusely, Kieson ran and was chased down and arrested shortly after. He was convicted and has appealed his case.
After his arrest, Kieson’s attorneys, utilizing the recent rulings in Commonwealth v. Long and Commonwealth v. Lora, argued against the stop and requested records on the arresting detectives. Specifically, based on the facts surrounding the arrest, the history of the arresting department, and other factors required in Long to show a reasonable claim of selective enforcement of the law, they requested documents relating to the arresting detectives such as their police reports and field interview reports for a year leading up to the arrest of Kieson. Based on Long, where the Supreme Judicial Court set out its desire to lower the burden on defendants to make a reasonable claim. It seems to be a logical extension of the Long decision that the SJC would allow discovery to prove racial bias that violates the Equal Protection Clause.
The Commonwealth argued against Kieson’s attorneys claiming: (1) Kieson did not prove racial motivation and, therefore, does not meet the requirements of Long to request the discovery, (2) Kieson had to first make a case for an unreasonable search or seizure, and (3) even if it was an unreasonable seizure, he would still be denied because Long involved a traffic stop and not a pedestrian stop. This position is vehemently opposed by both Kieson’s attorneys, as well as the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (MACDL). State and Federal law show that a person’s right to equal protection under the law and not to be treated differently based on the color of their skin is not predicated on succeeding in showing an unreasonable search or seizure or on proving racial motivation. This would fly in the face of the intention of equal protection. When the totality of the circumstances surrounding a stop, such as in Kieson’s case, allow for the reasonable claim of selective enforcement, the defendant must be allowed to obtain the statistical data to support that claim, regardless of if the defendant happens to be driving a car or walking on a street. The Commonwealth’s interpretation is contrary to Long, that the right to discovery applies equally to all claims of racially motivated stops. Additionally, if the Supreme Judicial Court adopts the Commonwealth’s interpretation, when there were grounds for a stop, it would be irrelevant if the officer’s motivation behind it was race.
In the coming weeks, the Supreme Judicial Court will have to decide when and how a defendant can make a racial profiling argument. When is it a reasonable claim of selective enforcement? Does the defendant have to prove an unreasonable search or seizure first, or does the officer’s motivations matter? I would expect the SJC to put force behind its decision in Long and provide a liberal discovery rule pertaining to potential racial bias in police conduct.
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