On a February evening in New Bedford, three detectives pulled over a red sedan for a lane violation.
After one of the passengers, Raekwan Paris, hopped out and loudly protested with “a closed, clenched fist,” the detectives handcuffed him and ordered the driver, a woman, and two remaining passengers, both men, out of the car. They, too, were frisked; the police later claimed they interpreted Paris’s erratic behavior as an attempt to distract them from contraband in the car. And the detectives found a gun on a Black man named Zahkuan Sweeting-Bailey, who was subsequently charged with several firearms offenses.
In court, Sweeting-Bailey moved to suppress the evidence, arguing that the police were acting on a “mere hunch” when they frisked him and didn’t have the proper legal basis for a search.
Last week, the state’s Supreme Judicial Court backed the police in a 4-3 decision.
The majority insisted it was a narrow ruling, tailored to the specific circumstances of the case. But the minority wasn’t so sure. In her dissent, Chief Justice Kimberly S. Budd wrote that the decision “greatly and, I believe, unwisely expands the circumstances in which officers may conduct a patfrisk.”
And Budd, who is Black, argued that the decision would be particularly damaging to people of color, writing that the court’s “uncritical deference” to police “provides the space into which seeps the damaging influence of racial bias.”
Now it is up to the courts and the police to make sure that Budd’s fears aren’t realized. The ruling should not, and cannot, become a license for police to conduct unreasonable searches; we’ve seen all too clearly what can come of traffic stops of Black men in particular.
Justice Elspeth B. Cypher, writing for the majority, cited a number of the justifications for the search. The detectives had known Paris to be polite in previous encounters, suggesting that his outburst was meant as a distraction; the three male passengers had prior involvement with firearms; they were known to be affiliated with gangs; and the area in which the stop occurred was plagued with crime.
Though none of these factors, standing alone, would allow for the search, she found, the “totality of these factors” did.
The dissenters argued that it wasn’t reasonable to infer that Paris’s outburst was anything more than what it appeared — a protest against what he considered an unjustified stop. And Sweeting-Bailey, himself, had done nothing to arouse suspicion. “It is undisputed that the defendant obeyed the officers’ instructions, was quiet and polite, and sat in the vehicle without any movements or gestures to suggest that he was in possession of a firearm,” wrote Justice Frank M. Gaziano in dissent.
The police officers’ suspicions in this instance were proved right, but the courts should be careful about edging toward a lower standard of evidence; on balance, it may cause more harm than good by encouraging confrontations between officers and citizens.
It is crucial, then, that the decision isn’t taken too far. Even the majority, to its credit, made this point.
“This case does not stand for the proposition that every occupant of a vehicle may be patfrisked after a legal exit order based only on the conduct of a companion,” Cypher wrote.
Still, when a court takes an elastic view of what the police can do, there is always the risk of a snap. We must guard against it.
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