RACE AND REASONABLE SUSPICION

Are we in a new era where the deference courts give to police officers based upon their training and experience may well deserve reconsideration. Michael E. Moritz College of Law) has posted Race and Reasonable Suspicion (Florida Law Review, Forthcoming 2021) on SSRN. Here is the abstract: The current political moment requires us to rethink the ways that race impacts policing. Many of the solutions will be political in nature, but legal reform is necessary as well. Law enforcement officers have a long history of considering a suspect’s race when conducting criminal investigations. The civil rights movement and the progressive criminal justice decisions of the Warren Court mitigated the explicit use of race as a factor, but there is ample evidence that many modern police officers still openly or implicitly use race to guide their investigative decisions.

This article examines and critiques how courts have historically analyzed the question of race in the context of determining reasonable suspicion or probable cause. There are two constitutional provisions that regulate whether and how the police can use race as a factor to meet the legal standards. Under the Fourth Amendment, police can only use race as a factor if race is relevant to the likelihood that the suspect is engaged in criminal activity. In theory, there could be a relationship between race and criminal activity in a narrow subset of cases. But in reality, police and courts rely on dubious anecdotal data to support this relationship, and conduct flawed statistical analysis to calculate the strength of the relationship. Also, much of the data that exists is tainted by decades of biased policing and prosecution practices. Because there are a small subset of cases in which a correlation between race and crime may exist; we need a legal reform that requires prosecutors to demonstrate the existence and strength of the correlation through empirical data rather than through the subjective experiences of law enforcement.

Under the Equal Protection Clause, police officers may only explicitly use race to support individualized suspicion if the use of race is narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest and there is no race-neutral factor that would also satisfy that interest. Although one would expect this standard to severely limit the use of race in criminal investigations, courts have allowed police to use race in a surprising number of cases. In many cases, courts do not even find that the explicit use of race triggers strict scrutiny. In other cases, when so-called race neutral factors trigger disparate impact, the evidentiary burden shifts to criminal defendants to prove that the race-neutral factor was applied with discriminatory purpose, a standard which is nearly impossible to establish. Even when strict scrutiny is triggered, courts have often been willing to conclude that crime control is a compelling state interest and that the use of race is narrowly tailored to meet that interest. This article argues that courts in criminal cases must apply an Equal Protection test identical to the test used in civil cases in order to limit the use of race in criminal investigations, thereby limiting the practice to the rare instances when it is truly necessary.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s