Judges Rule Race A Factor In Whether People Can Walk Away From Police Stops

Police shining lights on handcuffed African man sitting on curb

Photo: Getty Images

The Washington Supreme Court has ruled that race and ethnicity are factors in someone walking away from police encounters, according to The Associated Press (AP).

The Thursday (June 9) decision stems from a case involving Palla Sum, who's identified as Asian Pacific Islander, and his detainment by a Pierce County sheriff's deputy back in 2019. The cop found Sum sleeping in a car in Tacoma, and the driver provided a false name and birth date. While the deputy was checking for warrants, Sum reportedly sped off and crashed into someone's front yard.

Sum ended up facing charges but argued that he was free to leave during the initial stop. His attorneys aimed to suppress false statements used as evidence against their client, which were allegedly made after the deputy detained Sum under suspicion of car theft. Because the vehicle wasn't stolen, the officer didn't have grounds to detain Sum until after he drove away.

As a result, the justices found that the initial detention of Sum was unlawful. His convictions for attempting to flee police and unlawful possession of a firearm still stand.

The case highlights Black Americans and people of color have different experiences with law enforcement, especially when data shows that racial minorities see higher rates of arrests, incarceration, and use of force by authorities. The court argues that because of those different perspectives, minority status can be a factor in whether a person can walk away from a police encounter.

“Today, we formally recognize what has always been true: in interactions with law enforcement, race and ethnicity matter,” Justice Mary Yu wrote. “Therefore, courts must consider the race and ethnicity of the allegedly seized person as part of the totality of the circumstances when deciding whether there was a seizure.”

Pierce County Prosecutor Mary Robnett emailed a statement to reporters about the decision:

“Unfortunately, this decision will likely further confuse law enforcement officers about their interactions with the public,” she writes. “Police officers and trial court judges, especially, are facing some confusing and uncertain times ahead as they try to correctly apply the court’s ruling.”

You can read more about this HERE.

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