Massachusetts SJC revises and loosens its standard for claiming racial motivation for traffic stops under state constitution

Massachusetts SJC revises and loosens its standard for claiming racial motivation for traffic stops under state constitution. Commonwealth v. Long, 2020 Mass. LEXIS 520 (Sept. 17, 2020):

At about eleven o’clock on a November morning, two members of the Boston police department’s youth violence strike force, who had been driving an unmarked vehicle, noticed a maroon Mercedes pass in front of them on a residential street. The driver was a Black man. The officers decided to query the vehicle’s license plate in their onboard computer. The results returned indicated that the vehicle was registered to a Black woman and that it lacked an inspection sticker. The officers stopped the vehicle. When they learned that the driver, the defendant, had outstanding warrants and his driver’s license was suspended, they searched the vehicle and found a gun in a bag on the rear passenger seat.

The defendant subsequently was charged with several firearms offenses. He moved to suppress the evidence seized from the vehicle, on the ground that the motor vehicle stop was the product of selective enforcement based on race, and the inventory search of the vehicle was impermissible. A Superior Court judge determined that the defendant had not met his initial burden to raise a reasonable inference that the stop had been motivated by race, and that the decision to impound the vehicle was reasonable in the circumstances; he therefore denied the motion. The defendant sought leave in the county court to pursue an interlocutory appeal; the single justice allowed the application and ordered the appeal to be conducted in this court.

We conclude that the Superior Court judge abused his discretion in denying the motion to suppress, because the defendant produced sufficient evidence to raise a reasonable inference that the stop was racially motivated. Nonetheless, we are persuaded that, in our efforts in Commonwealth v. Lora, 451 Mass. 425, 436-438, 886 N.E.2d 688 (2008), to ease the burden on defendants, we set the bar too high for defendants attempting to establish a reasonable inference of a discriminatory stop. In practice, providing statistical evidence sufficient to raise a reasonable inference that a motor vehicle stop was racially motivated, given the limitations of available police data, has proved infeasible for defendants. The judge’s ruling well illustrates the concerns repeatedly raised about the difficulty of meeting the requirements set forth in Lora, supra at 447-449. See Commonwealth v. Buckley, 478 Mass. 861, 879-880, 90 N.E.3d 767 (2018) (Budd, J., concurring), and cases cited.

Thus, in order to ensure that drivers who are subjected to racially motivated traffic stops have a viable means by which to vindicate their rights to the equal protection of the laws, as provided by the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights, we today establish a revised test. A defendant seeking to suppress evidence based on a claim that a traffic stop violated principles of equal protection bears the burden of establishing, by motion, a reasonable inference that the officer’s decision to initiate the stop was motivated by race or another protected class. To raise this inference, the defendant must point to specific facts from the totality of the circumstances surrounding the stop; the inference need not be based in statistical analysis. If this inference is established, the defendant is entitled to a hearing at which the Commonwealth would have the burden of rebutting the inference. Absent a successful rebuttal, any evidence derived from the stop would be suppressed.

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