Bible, Bob Dylan and Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court

The wicked flee when no man pursueth: but the righteous are bold as a lion. — Proverbs 28:1

In the 2016 Massachusetts SJC decision of Commonwealth v Warren, the Court declared that running away from the police, without additional indications of wrongdoing, was not an admission of guilt.  In that case, a man’s conviction for a weapons violation was overturned because when initially stopped by a uniformed police officer, the defendant simply ran away.  While running together with other clues might constitute a righteous stop, the defendant had done nothing but soundlessly taken off across a nearby park.

Putting aside that most of us would not act that way either because of respect for the police function or fear of getting shot in the leg, it is interesting to note that the law is clear that, upon being approached by the police, you can remain totally silent and just walk away.  It is up to the policeman to then apprehend you, but the police must have “reasonable suspicion.”  If you have a color TV with wires hanging out tucked under your arm, you are going to be intercepted but, if you are just out for a stroll, any stop of your progress, by itself, is improper and any evidence found on your person (gun, stolen property) will not reverse the impropriety of the police action.

While the holding did not turn on the race of the defendant, the Court went out of its way to note that, in the case of black males in Boston who are stopped, questioned and arrested in greater proportion than non-minorities, the fact that such a person of color might just choose to exercise his Constitutional right to run away is quite understandable.

This case reminds me of a lyric from my favorite Bob Dylan song, Brownsville Girl:

I was crossing the street when shots rang out, I didn’t know whether to duck or to run, so I ran….

Note: credit for a great analysis of this case by Peter T. Elikann in the current issue of Massachusetts Law Review, and for the quote from Proverbs, a source I confess that I seldom reference.


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