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How may California Supreme Court ruling affect police encounters?

On Behalf of | Jun 16, 2024 | Civil Rights

When someone has a fatal encounter with a police officer, you often hear people ask, “Why did they run away?” or “Why didn’t they just comply?” However, for many people, an approaching police officer can cause such fear, even if they’ve done nothing wrong, that their first instinct is to avoid them. This fear can be based on their own experience, stories from friends or even things they’ve read about or seen on TV.

Police have often used the fact that someone tried to hide from them or avoid them as grounds for arrest, even if they have no evidence of criminal activity. The California Supreme Court recently ruled, however, that police cannot detain someone just because they tried to elude them. A majority of the justices determined that police can’t consider this “reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.”

One justice said, “Many individuals — including, particularly, people of color — commonly hold a perception that engaging in any manner with police, including in seemingly casual or innocuous ways, entails a degree of risk to one’s safety.” She noted that “attempting to avoid police officers reflects, for many people, simply a desire to avoid risking injury or death.”

The case that made it to the high court involved a man who was arrested after he tried to hide behind a parked car to avoid police. He contended that the evidence they found of criminal activity after they caught up to him was inadmissible.

What can the police still do?

This ruling means that if police detain someone simply because they tried to avoid them, that can be considered an illegal stop. This can affect the admissibility of any evidence police might obtain after that stop. It’s possible that already-settled cases could be re-examined.

What effect this has on real-life encounters between police and Californians remains to be seen. As one justice explained, police can still “approach people in public, engage them in consensual conversation, and take note of their appearance and behavior” as well as “consider what they see in plain view.” All of these things can still lead to arrest. 

This ruling is likely to cause confusion both for police and the public. That’s just one reason why if you have been arrested it’s always smart to have legal representation as soon as possible to protect your rights.