Washington State Supreme Court Rules Race Can Invalidate Police Stops

The Washington State Supreme Court ruled last week that someone stopped by police can assume that it was not their behavior that attracted an officer’s attention but their skin color.

The unanimous ruling by the state’s highest court has left police and prosecuting attorneys unsure of how to proceed with ordinary law enforcement. However, they are confident the ruling will make obtaining convictions in court for criminal offenses even more difficult.

The ruling came in the case of Palla Sum, who was convicted of first-degree unlawful possession of a firearm after his April 2019 arrest. Sum was discovered by a Pierce County Washington sheriff’s deputy along with another person in a parked car located in an area the deputy said was “known for stolen vehicles.”

The officer asked the two men for their IDs and when he went to his patrol car to check them, Sum started the vehicle and took off quickly. He was arrested following a high-speed chase when he crashed in a residential front yard. Sum’s conviction resulted from the discovery of a pistol inside the car, which he was not allowed to possess.

Sum appealed his conviction, claiming that when the officer asked him for his ID, he was being detained without reasonable suspicion or a warrant. He argued that since the initial stop was unlawful, all the evidence obtained thereafter to prosecute him should be inadmissible.

Washington State law provides that a police stop technically occurs when a person is restrained from moving freely and reasonably believes that they are not free to leave because of an officer’s “use of force or display of authority.”

The determination is to be made after “considering all the circumstances,” and Sum asked the court to rule those include a “person’s race and the contingencies thereof.” The court agreed, finding that a person could consider themselves to not be free to leave an encounter because they are aware of the history of “disproportionate police contacts, investigative seizures, and uses of force against BIPOC [black, indigenous, people of color] in Washington.”

The ruling came even though Sum is Asian, an ethnic group making up 9.6% of Washington residents but only 0.34% of the persons arrested by law enforcement officers in 2020. The court found that “a lack of statistics cannot totally negate the relevance of a person’s race or ethnicity.”

While the court’s ruling does little to offer guidance to law enforcement officers, it is virtually certain to result in greater difficulty in prosecuting crimes. Defense attorneys in the state now know that they can challenge every police stop based on nothing more than the defendant’s race.

One Puget Sound officer said that the entire state government has smashed police morale. He said, “It feels like they’re just giving the middle finger to the police.”