A state supreme court recently ruled that race plays a factor in police encounters. The Washington (State) Supreme Court ruled on a case involving someone of Asian/Pacific Islander descent who gave a false name and fled from police. The court ultimately decided that race matters in the outcome of policing and agreed with the man’s lawyer that non-white individuals have reason to fear police.
A man named Palla Sum gave police false information to police in Tacoma, Washington in 2019. He had been spotted asleep in his vehicle and police decided to approach and question him. Sum lied to police about his name and birthdate.
Police ran the plate and determined that the vehicle was not stolen. After leaving the stop, Sum crashed his vehicle and attempted to flee police on foot, which ended in him being caught. Upon further police investigation, it was found that the name and birthdate police were given was false.
According to the Washington Examiner, Sum was “charged with making a false or misleading statement to a public servant, attempting to elude a pursuing police vehicle, and unlawful possession of a firearm.”
The Court ruled in Sum’s favor, citing the impact of “racialized policing” as why Sum may have tried to flee police. The argument from Sum and his lawyers was that once police determined that the vehicle was his, they did not have “‘reasonable suspicion’ to seize Sum”, according to a report in The Seattle Times.
According to a statement by Sum’s lawyer, “A reasonable person in Sum’s position would not have felt free to ignore the officer,” urging that the court “adopt a new standard.”
The lawyers continued, saying that a “reasonable person…familiar with patterns of policing in America and the risks a person of color takes in walking away from or disregarding police interaction.” Ultimately, the Court agreed.
Some applauded the ruling, mentioning that “lived experience” is relevant in such a case, and that racial identity is a key factor in someone’s perception of a situation involving the police. “We are pleased that the court has recognized the lived experiences of our clients and the significant harms they face due to racialized policing,” said Anita Khandelwal of the King County Dept. of Public Defense.
A law professor at the University of Washington concurred. “The realities that people’s experience in police encounters and whether they feel free to leave or not can differ depending on demographic characteristics,” said Professor Mary Fan.
The ruling also faced immediate backlash, most notably from the prosecuting attorney and a Republican State Senator. The senator, Jeff Wilson, attacked the ruling as an assault on the Constitution and the rule of law. “The U.S. Constitution declares that every individual is subject to the same laws as everyone else”, mentioned Wilson. The senator then added that many on the political left no longer “believe in equality for every person under the law.”
Prosecuting attorney Mary Robnett also objected to the ruling, citing that decisions such as this will make the jobs of law enforcement officers more difficult. “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,” Robnett said.