Mass. SJC wants lawmakers to require racial data on traffic stops

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The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has a request for state lawmakers: Require police to gather racial data on traffic stops.

The SJC’s request comes as a conference committee is hammering out a final version of a police accountability bill to bring to Gov. Charlie Baker, CommonWealth magazine reports.

The Senate included such a provision in its version that passed in July.

The unusual move comes as the court opted to lower the legal burden for proving a traffic stop conducted by police was racially motivated, which defendants can access to suppress evidence collected during a stop, through its ruling in Commonwealth v. Edward Long.

“This type of data collection would help protect drivers from racially discriminatory traffic stops, and also would protect police officers who do not engage in such discriminatory stops,” Justice Frank Gaziano wrote for the majority of the court in the decision.

The previous standard to prove whether a motorist was racially profiled dated to 2008 and required a statistical analysis of other stops conducted by police within the jurisdiction where a case happened.

According to WBUR, only one person was successful in suppressing evidence through that process in the last 12 years.

But the court, in its decision, ultimately acknowledged the burden was too difficult for defendants to meet, and instead now allows cases to use specific aspects of the incident in question to prove racial bias, according to CommonWealth magazine.

The driving factor behind the switch was the lack of available data.

A law passed by the Legislature in 2000 required law enforcement to collect data on stops made by every officer, but the measure has expired, the magazine reports.

“Our effort to ease the burden on defendants has been unsuccessful due to inadequate or inaccessible data,” Gaziano wrote in the court’s opinion.

Last year, officials passed a law barring the use of handheld cell phones while driving that included a mandate for police to record details of every traffic stop — including race — where an officer issues a ticket or written warning.

Officials are required to release an annual report with that information, though no report has so far been published, according to CommonWealth.

Under the bill passed by the Senate, traffic stop data would be collected by officer and would be available to cities and towns and the Registry of Motor Vehicles, according to CommonWealth. The measure, which would replace the 2019 law, would also require departments to each publish statistical analysis of stop and search data.

Matthew Segal, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, told the magazine state lawmakers and police are to blame for the lack of data.

“We know from our own advocacy for years on this, it’s like pulling teeth to get data from police departments,” Segal said.

The conference committee working on the pending police accountability legislation has met in closed-door sessions since the House passed its own version of the bill on July .

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