Stops by police are once again the subject of released data. The Washington Supreme Court says a person’s race and ethnicity must be taken into account when deciding whether they were free to leave an encounter with police. The state’s Supreme Court said this last week in its latest decision. The overall objective stated is to counteract bias in the justice system.
This was an unanimous ruling. The underlying
2019 case was about Palla Sum, an Asian Pacific Islander. A Pierce County sheriff’s deputy found Sum sleeping in his car in Tacoma. When approached, Sum gave a false name and birth date. He also drove off as the deputy was checking for warrants. He didn’t get far without incident. He crashed in a front yard.
The issue is whether Sum was free to leave when he did. Ruling for Sum recognizes that people of color have long faced excessive policing in the U.S. and sometimes find it necessary to over-comply with law enforcement as a survival strategy — and not feel free to leave in a situation where a white person might, the groups argued.
The officer detained Sum using a lie. He implied that Sum was under investigation for car theft when in truth, the car was not stolen. At the trial it was determined that the officer had no reason to detain him until after he sped off. This means that the initial detention was unlawful and a lower court judge should not have allowed evidence of the false statements at trial.
Civil rights and public defense organizations praised the ruling. The King County Department of Public Defense, American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and the Korematsu Center for Law and Equality at Seattle University School of Law filed a friend-of-the-court brief urging the justices to side with Sum.
The Washington Supreme Court showed that it used this case to emphasize that people of color have different experiences with law enforcement than whites. This is supported by data showing that police have long disproportionately arrested and used force against Black people and other minority groups. Those experiences force feed a different perspective regarding whether nonwhites are free to leave an encounter with officers.
Some officers even lie or take advantage of ignorance when they believe minorities don’t know their rights. This makes minority status one factor in determining whether a person has been “seized” by law enforcement, the court said. This ruling was the latest in a series of actions by Washington’s justices to counteract implicit and sometimes explicit bias in the justice system.
Washington Supreme Court:
“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.”
Some other courts have recognized that race and ethnicity are among the factors that can determine whether a police interaction rises to the level of a seizure. The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin, has held that race is “not irrelevant” in such determinations, and the New Hampshire Supreme Court in 2020 ruled that “race is an appropriate circumstance to consider.”