SEATTLE — A person’s race and ethnicity must be taken into account when deciding whether they are free to leave a police encounter, the Washington Supreme Court said Thursday in its latest ruling aimed at countering bias in the judicial system.

The unanimous decision involved Palla Sum, a man identified in court records as an Asian Pacific Islander. When a Pierce County sheriff’s deputy found him sleeping in his car in Tacoma in 2019, Sum gave a fake name and birth date, drove off as the deputy checked warrants and crashed into someone’s front yard.

Whether Sum was free to leave when he did was a key point in his case.

At his trial, he sought to suppress evidence of his false statements, saying they were only made after the officer detained him implying that he was the subject of a car theft investigation. In reality, the car was not stolen and the officer had no reason to detain it until he accelerated, the judges said, meaning the original detention was unlawful and that a lower court judge should not have allowed evidence of the false statements at trial. .

Although the court was able to reach the same conclusion in the case of a white defendant, it used the case to highlight that people of color have different experiences with law enforcement, as the data confirms. showing that police have long arrested and used disproportionate force against black people and other minorities.

Because of these experiences, they may have different views on whether they are free to leave an encounter with agents. This makes minority status a factor in determining whether a person has been “seized” by law enforcement, the court said.

“Today, we formally recognize what has always been true: in interactions with law enforcement, race and ethnicity matter,” Judge Mary Yu wrote. account the race and ethnicity of the person allegedly seized as part of the totality of the circumstances in 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 United States Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin, has ruled that race is “not immaterial” in such determinations, and the Supreme Court of New Hampshire in 2020 ruled that “race is an appropriate circumstance to be considered”.

Thursday’s ruling did not affect Sum’s convictions for attempted flight from police and unlawful possession of a firearm, which he did not contest. While state attorneys agreed that race and ethnicity can be considered in determining whether someone is free to leave a police encounter, they said race was irrelevant in Sum’s case and that an officer requesting his identification did not constitute detention.

The ruling was the latest in a series of actions by Washington judges to counter implicit and sometimes explicit biases in the justice system. The court previously singled out racially motivated prosecutorial misconduct for full appellate review, overturned the state’s death penalty because it was applied arbitrarily and racially disproportionately, and passed a first rule across the country aimed at improving the racial diversity of juries.

This rule prohibits prospective jurors from being dismissed without cause if “an objective observer” – aware of the effects of institutional or implicit bias, in addition to deliberate racism – “might consider race or ethnicity to be a factor “in the dismissal.

The state Supreme Court adopted similar language in its ruling Thursday, saying that changing a person’s interaction with law enforcement from a conversation to a “seizure” is based on what a similar objective observer would think.

Civil rights and public advocacy organizations welcomed the decision. The King County Department of Public Defense, the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, and the Korematsu Center for Law and Equality at Seattle University Law School filed a friend of the court brief urging judges to side with Sum.

Ruling for Sum recognizes that people of color have long faced over-policing in the United States 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 could, the groups argued.

“We are pleased that the court has recognized the lived experiences of our clients and the significant harms they face as a result of racialized policing,” King County Department of Public Defense director Anita Khandelwal said in a statement. press release sent by e-mail. “It’s not often that our clients see their truths elevated in this way.

This article originally appeared on Kitsap Sun: Washington Justices: Race is a factor in analysis of police checks

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