Police can use traffic stops as a shortcut to gain evidence of an unrelated crime without violating the state’s constitutional ban on unreasonable searches by law enforcement, the state’s highest court ruled Wednesday.
“The fact that a traffic law has been violated is, generally speaking, a legally sufficient basis to justify stopping a vehicle, irrespective of any additional suspicions held by the officer(s) conducting the stop,’’ Justice Elspeth B. Cypher wrote for the Supreme Judicial Court.
But the seven justices also expressed concern about racial profiling in traffic stops and urged both defense attorneys and lawmakers to once again explore whether police act out of bias, intentional or not.
“Most officers act in good faith,’’ Justice Kimberly S. Budd noted in a concurring opinion. But “recent tragic events have shown that the fear people of color have of being stopped by police is justified: African-Americans have been killed during routine traffic stops.”
Currently, police are authorized to make “pretextual stops,” in which they stop vehicles for a traffic violation even though they have another investigation in mind.
The court said that overturning what lawyers call the “authorization test” under Article 14 of the state’s constitution would be unworkable because judges would have to delve into the subjective views of police, rather than look to the objective fact that a traffic law was violated.
“The authorization test avoids this often-speculative probing of the police’s ‘true’ motives,” Cypher wrote.
The court’s ruling came in the Plymouth County case of Rogelio Buckley, an African-American man. Buckley was a passenger in a car that was stopped by a uniformed Whitman police officer for speeding at the request of detectives engaged in a drug investigation.
Buckley was charged with illegal gun possession after a firearm was found on the passenger seat when he stepped out of the car.
Buckley’s lawyers had explicitly stated that they were not claiming Whitman police had engaged in racial profiling.
But the court noted that the legal door is open for such claims.
Ten years ago, the court said, it issued a ruling that permits defense lawyers to question whether there is racial bias in a case that involves a traffic stop — yet not a single case has been brought before the court since the 2008 ruling in Commonwealth v. Lora.
“We take this opportunity to encourage lawyers to use the Lora framework in cases where there is reason to believe a traffic stop was the result of racial profiling,’’ Cypher wrote. “We wait to do so in a case where a driver has actually alleged and laid a proper foundation for a claim” of racial bias.
Budd noted that state lawmakers once authorized a major data collection effort by law enforcement, and an analysis by Northeastern University experts, to determine whether there were racial disparities in traffic stops.
That study was done in 2004 and has not been repeated since, she wrote.
“It has been seventeen years since the Legislature required State agencies to collect data on racial profiling,’’ Budd wrote. “The time has come for the Legislature to address the problem once more. Publicly available data would not only assist litigants, but would also inform the public about this ongoing problem.”
The American Civil Liberties Union filed a friend of the court brief in the case and had urged the SJC to use the case to combat racial profiling by police through unwarranted traffic stops.
“Pretextual traffic stops fuel discriminatory policing,’’ Rahsaan Hall, director of the liberal advocacy group’s Racial Justice Program, said in a statement. The SJC ruling “is a setback for racial justice, for the police accountability movement, and for the physical safety of people of color in Massachusetts.”
Hall urged lawmakers to embrace Budd’s recommendations.
Plymouth County District Attorney Timothy J. Cruz said in a statement, “This case affirms the law on traffic stops while at the same time recognizing the importance of the prevention of racial profiling in our state and nation. The SJC recognized this and ruled accordingly.”John R. Ellement can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JREbosglobe.