The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court holds oral arguments in appellate cases in the first week of each month from September to May. WGBH Morning Edition host Joe Mathieu spoke with Northeastern University law professor and WGBH News legal analyst Daniel Medwed about one of the cases on the SJC's docket this month. The transcript below has been edited for clarity.
Joe Mathieu: We've got a full schedule of oral arguments this week and some particular ones you're looking at.
Daniel Medwed: Absolutely. There's one on the calendar [that's] actually being argued today that really caught my attention. It's called Commonwealth v. Long, and here's what happened.
A young, African-American man was driving a Mercedes SUV on Savin Hill Avenue in Boston when he unwittingly passed an unmarked police vehicle with two BPD officers — members of the gang crimes unit — in it. They were intrigued by this car, so they ran the license plate through the system. It came back as being registered to an African-American woman about a month before. Now, they noticed that no inspection sticker had been issued for the vehicle, and under Massachusetts law, you have to get your inspection within seven days of registration. So they decided to pursue this vehicle. Long story short, it turned out the driver, Edward Long, was driving with a suspended license. The police essentially searched the car and they found an illegal handgun. Now, Long was charged with a number of gun-related crimes, but the interesting issue here is whether that search was constitutional. Was it a lawful stop?
Mathieu: Do we believe they pulled it over because it was a Mercedes, by the way? Is that how we're reading it?
Medwed: That's part of the argument here from the perspective of the defense.
Mathieu: So did they toss out the search? What happened in court?
Medwed: It's an interesting procedural posture. The defense filed a motion to suppress, or a motion to exclude, the gun evidence on the grounds that the stop was unconstitutional — specifically, that the stop was pretextual [and] that the inspection sticker infraction was a pretext for racial animus [and] racial profiling. The defense even put on an expert witness, a statistician from Worcester State University, who scoured through six years of data from these two officers about all their stops and all their citations, and look at what she found.
She found that even though the neighborhoods in which they patrolled, not one of those neighborhoods had an African-American population in excess of 44 percent. Nevertheless, 80 percent of the stops and citations were to African-Americans drivers, almost twice [as many]. So the judge, looking at all this evidence, however, decided that the police search was legitimate.
And the judge relied on a very important 2008 SJC case called Laura, which established the framework for how we evaluate claims of pretextual stops. The framework has two parts. First, you're supposed to presume good faith on the part of the police if they have probable cause that there's a crime. And next, it's up to the defense to bear the burden of proving racial profiling, essentially. Here, the court said the police had good faith because they were pursuing that inspection sticker infraction, they had probable cause for that, and the defense couldn't meet its burden.
Mathieu: So with the gun evidence in hand, was Long convicted at trial?
Medwed: Another interesting wrinkle here. Now, ordinarily, what happens after you lose a motion to suppress is you just go to trial and probably are convicted in a case like this, or you plead guilty. But Long sought what's called an interlocutory appeal. It's an unusual procedural device where you ask the SJC to immediately rule on your motion to suppress. You don't wait to see how things play out. The SJC seldom takes these cases, but it agreed to hear the case here.
Mathieu: Is it a good sign for the defense, at least, that the SJC took the case at this stage?
Medwed: Absolutely. I think it's a sign for Mr. Long, at least, that at a minimum, the SJC is troubled by these facts, or perhaps is reconsidering the whole framework to the Laura case. Just two years ago in 2018, the SJC in another opinion said, Racial profiling is an enormous problem here — we're not sure the Laura case is working. And in looking at all the cases in Massachusetts ever since that Laura opinion in 2008, the one that set up this framework, I think there's only been one case where a judge suppressed evidence on the grounds of racial profiling. So the time is ripe for a change and lots of people are thinking about ways to refashion this test.
Mathieu: So this ruling could be, then, much bigger than this case. This could have real precedent setting on racial profiling.
Medwed: Absolutely, statewide ramifications for how we look at racial profiling in the commonwealth of Massachusetts.