On December 17 2019, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) and the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice (CHHIRJ) at Harvard Law School filed an amicus brief in the matter of Commonwealth v. Evelyn urging the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court to recognize that an individual’s identity as a Black teenage boy affects whether he would feel “free to leave” when confronted by the police. This is a key question because a person’s rights under the United States Constitution and Massachusetts Declaration of Rights are not triggered unless a person is “seized” by police, a notion which means that a reasonable person would not feel free to leave.
Tykorie Evelyn, a seventeen-year-old African-American boy, was approached on the sidewalk by Boston police officers in a patrol car in the city’s predominantly Black Roxbury neighborhood. The officers trailed Mr. Evelyn for the length of a football field in their cruiser and tried multiple times to question Mr. Evelyn, but he repeatedly declined to engage. At that point, one of the officers exited the vehicle to continue the encounter. The lower court nonetheless held that a reasonable person in Mr. Evelyn’s position would feel free to leave the interaction with police, which meant he was not “seized” and his protections under the federal and state constitutions did not apply. In reaching this conclusion, the lower court did not consider how Mr. Evelyn’s identity as a Black seventeen-year-old male would affect his perspective with respect to this police encounter.
The brief filed by LDF and CHHIRJ explains how the lower court ruling ignores the lived experiences of Black youth, especially those living in racially segregated and over-policed neighborhoods. Black youth are routinely forced to manage the risks of false arrest or bodily harm from noncompliance, or even perceived noncompliance, with police officers. The false, yet entrenched, stereotypes linking Blackness with criminality have led to pervasive police abuses that shape a Black person’s experience with police. This reality understandably shapes how Black youth perceive police interactions and whether they feel free to leave encounters with law enforcement. LDF and CHHIRJ urge the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court to acknowledge the unique experiences and perspectives of a reasonable Black teenage boy that may cause him to feel compelled to stay during a police encounter.
UPDATE: September 2020
On September 18 2020, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued a mixed ruling in Commonwealth v. Evelyn recognizing that an individual’s age should be considered when determining whether they feel free to leave an encounter with police. The court declined to make a similar categorical rule about whether race should be considered, though race may be considered in some circumstances. The court further instructed courts to be cognizant of the ways in which race impacts Black people’s behaviors around police when determining whether there is reasonable suspicion to justify a seizure.
“The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s decision in Commonwealth v. Evelyn is a step in the right direction, but, ultimately, does not go far enough. While we are pleased that the court recognized that an individual’s age must be considered when determining whether they would feel free to leave an encounter with police, we are disappointed that it did not make the same categorical determination about race,” said Ashok Chandran, Assistant Counsel at LDF. “Amid the national movement for police accountability, the country is more aware than ever that people of color — especially Black youth — repeatedly and disproportionately endure discrimination and violence from police, which unquestionably impacts how they view all police interactions.”
In the amicus brief, LDF argued that a Black teenager is much less likely to feel free to leave encounters with police, given the extensive history of police abusing Black communities — both in Boston and across the country. Black youth are routinely forced to manage the risks of false arrest or bodily harm when interacting with police officers, and these lived experiences inevitably shape how Black youth perceive police interactions. This question of perception is critical, because an individual’s rights under the United States Constitution and Massachusetts Declaration of Rights are triggered when a person is “seized” by police – the point at which a reasonable person would not feel free to leave.
While it ultimately did not acknowledge that race should be a categorical factor in determining whether an individual feels free to leave a police encounter, the court noted that its opinion was “attempt[ing] to focus attention on the issue of race.” Indeed, the court affirmed that “African Americans, particularly males, may believe that they have been seized in situations where other members of society would not” and that a Black teenager’s “nervous or evasive behavior” must be treated with skepticism in determining reasonable suspicion because of the history of police abuse of Black communities. It also rejected the idea that being in a “high-crime” area alone can support reasonable suspicion, because of the ways in which that marker has been deployed along racial lines.