Flight ≠ guilt: Massachusetts court recognizes fear of police brutality

Maddie Boone, Contributing Writer

Does fleeing a scene give police probable cause to pursue individuals? In late September, a Massachusetts court reviewed the case of Jimmy Warren, a man arrested for unlawful gun possession in 2011. Warren was standing nearby when a police officer appeared responding to a call about a break-in in the neighborhood. When approached by the officer, Warren fled and was later caught and charged with unlawful possession of a firearm. This charge, unrelated to the officer’s primary reason for being in the area, was later taken to a high court following the initial decision to charge him. The court’s response released in September stated that the policeman lacked reasonable suspicion to stop Warren.

However, the implications of this decision are much greater than recognizing a simple lack of reasonable suspicion. The court first noted that the description given of the break-in suspect was too vague for the officer to target Warren as a potential suspect. The court then reiterated that Massachusetts state law allows individuals to refuse to speak to the police or even walk away if they are not charged. Finally and most importantly, the high court stated that flight does not equal guilt. Considering the state’s “pattern of racial profiling of black males in the city of Boston,” fear and humiliation may be alternative reasons for an individual to flee. The court stated:

“The finding that black males in Boston are disproportionately and repeatedly targeted for FIO [Field Interrogation and Observation] encounters suggests a reason for flight totally unrelated to consciousness of guilt. Such an individual, when approached by the police, might just as easily be motivated by the desire to avoid the recurring indignity of being racially profiled as by the desire to hide criminal activity.”

Police brutality and racism are key issues that have a causal and cyclical relationship that the United States faces today. The impact of Warren’s case goes far beyond slapping the wrists of officers for racial profiling; this case proves that the racism and police brutality that occur in this country has reached a point where even the law recognizes and sees black males’ fears of the police as reasonable.

As citizens, we are not meant to fear those whose purpose it is to protect us. Even as a white female college student living in a small town with a large police presence, I often find that I stiffen up as police cars pass by me while I walk home at night. I cannot imagine the fear that black males and females feel seeing police both day and night. While I acknowledge that fleeing the scene may seem like suspicious behavior, given the increasingly tenuous climate of American police brutality and racism, the details of this case are important to consider. Courts should take into account alternative motives for flight in future arrest cases. Every human deserves dignity and respect, especially in the face of the law.

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