Yesterday, 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.  

“It is imperative for courts to consider the context of police encounters, and this context must include the years of discriminatory policing experienced by Black youth, as well as their friends and family, which unquestionably shape how they reasonably feel during interactions with police,” said Jin Hee Lee, LDF’s Senior Deputy Director of Litigation. “In order to give real meaning to federal and state constitutional protections, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court must determine the moment of seizure from the perspective of how a reasonable person would actually experience a police encounter. In doing so, the Court should recognize that Black teenagers experience interactions with police very differently than adults or their white peers.”

“In Boston and elsewhere, young Black men growing up in segregated, high poverty communities experience police suspicion and disrespect as a default. These negative experiences are especially acute when such communities are labeled as high crime areas and then saturated with police, further entrenching racial disparities in the criminal legal system,” said David Harris, CHHIRJ Managing Director. “Our Supreme Judicial Court has already recognized the impact of this kind of policing in Boston and the ‘recurring indignity of being racially profiled.’ As embodied in that decision, equal justice requires taking the reality of policing into account in the seizure standard.”

As the country’s first and foremost civil rights law organization founded by the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, LDF has worked for almost eight decades to eliminate the arbitrary role of race in the administration of the criminal justice system through its litigation, policy, and organizing efforts.

The CHHIRJ at Harvard Law School honors and continues the work of Charles Hamilton Houston, an esteemed 20th century legal scholar and litigator. CHHIRJ uses a community justice approach to ensure that every member of American society has equal access to the responsibilities, opportunities, and privileges of membership in the United States. CHHIRJ seeks to eliminate practices and policies that contribute to mass incarceration and mass criminalization and promotes investment in communities that have been most affected by these policies.

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Founded in 1940, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) is the nation’s first civil and human rights law organization. LDF has been completely separate from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) since 1957—although LDF was originally founded by the NAACP and shares its commitment to equal rights. LDF’s Thurgood Marshall Institute is a multi-disciplinary and collaborative hub within LDF that launches targeted campaigns and undertakes innovative research to shape the civil rights narrative. In media attributions, please refer to us as the NAACP Legal Defense Fund or LDF.

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Read our amicus brief here.

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