Editorial, Opinion

EDITORIAL: Commonwealth vs. Long demonstrates difficulties of determining racial profiling

It was revealed that a young Black man driving a Mercedes SUV in Boston was stopped by two police officers after running the car’s license plate in the Commonwealth vs. Long oral argument. The minutiae of the case haven’t been revealed to the public yet, but according to WGBH, the police officers ran the plate because “they were intrigued by the car.” 

The officers later noticed that the car did not have the legally required inspection sticker and pursued it on that basis. When they stopped the car, it turned out that the man had a suspended license. After searching the car, the officers discovered an illegally owned handgun. The man ended up being rightfully charged with some gun-related crimes. 

However, the question here is not one of innocence. It is whether or not the initial stop was lawful. As in, what exactly prompted these officers’ decision to stop this car? Without more details about the incident itself and what exactly “intriguing” entails, it is extremely difficult to draw out these officers’ intentions.

The defense relied on racial profiling and that they pulled the car over because it was a Black man driving a Mercedes. And that is a compelling argument for malicious intent, the fact that they found a Black man driving a luxury car suspicious. It is 2020, there are definitely people of color in this country that have done well for themselves — especially if they’re living in Boston. 

Furthermore, the officers in question have highly questionable stop and citation histories. Through a rigorous analysis of six years of data, an expert witness discovered that they disproportionately stopped Black drivers despite conducting their patrols in neighborhoods with, at most, a 44 percent Black population. 

It is reasonable to question why their personal histories were not given greater weight. Typically when officers are patrolling in areas of high crime, despite all people having very similar probabilities of committing crime, Black people still get stopped at a higher rate. It is this racist reality that makes it crucial to know what exactly these officers found intriguing about the car. 

Yes, police officers randomly run license plates all of the time. But this was clearly not a set of random circumstances. If the judge in this case is depending on a precedent that tells us to assume that the officers are acting in good faith, what exactly was their initial “reasonable” suspicion or “probable” cause in this case? 

Intrigue should not be a valid nor accepted basis in a court of law. 

Yet, the information revealed by license plate checks isn’t even private. The defense cannot even argue that what the officers did was unconstitutional on the basis of a Fourth Amendment violation. Most courts assume that drivers don’t have any enormous expectations of privacy, essentially extending police the permission to run these random checks. 

Additionally, we lack sufficient information about other races that these officers interacted with. Did they receive the same degree of investigation? If yes, these officers were merely acting to protect the important public interest of safety. Otherwise, this stop is strictly a matter of racial profiling. 

These police officers received the entire benefit of the doubt in this case. But, the judge appears to have made huge leaps of assumptions about their character based on a precedent. The just method, however, is one in which the burden of proof falls onto them. 

Probable cause in this case is extremely vague. If they’re not going to face repercussions, they should be required to explain the reasoning behind why they checked the license plate before they knew about anything suspicious. The precedent that this entire case is operating on is poor for accurately assessing the officers’ attention. 

It is highly unlikely that the court will come to any satisfying conclusion about racial profiling in this incident. Nowadays, racism is not some binary that we can easily notice is taking place. For most people, it is buried deep in their unconscious and is a blind spot for them, no matter how progressive they believe they might be. 

There will never a perfect time to push back on racial profiling, especially when a number of legitimate crimes were committed. In this case, the gun-related charges cannot definitively justify the means used to discover the illegal handgun. However, racial dynamics disproportionately affect Black and brown people. That should not be the case when the police force is supposed to exist for the equal protection of all citizens. 

An immediately actionable step the Boston Police Department and other departments can take is curating a more diverse police force. Not only would court systems be less overwhelmed with ambiguous incidents that it is not equipped to resolve, but also it would be the first step to building bridges between the police and people of color again in this country. 

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