Washington Supreme Court ruling: State vs. Sum

This morning the Washington State Supreme Court handed down a ruling that rewrites the rules for “Terry stops,” when a police officer interrogates a person without a warrant.

At issue is the point at which an individual being interrogated by an officer becomes “seized,” i.e. they believe that they are no longer free to leave or to refuse to answer the officer’s questions. The standard is that seizure happens when a reasonable person, given all the circumstances, would believe that they have been seized. In today’s ruling, the Court clarified that race and ethnicity are factors to be included in weighing “all the circumstances,” recognizing that there is a clear, unambiguous record of law enforcement agencies treating members of BIPOC communities differently, i.e. a Black person may have a different interpretation of when they have been seized than a White person.

The result is that if the seizure begins before an officer has “reasonable suspicion” that a crime has been committed or the individual is about to commit a crime, then the seizure is unconstitutional and any evidence collected was done so unconstitutionally and must be suppressed.

In some ways, this makes the rules even less clear. This ruling may end up being as important as the Miranda ruling that required the reading of a suspect’s rights when they are arrested; officers may need to explicitly tell individuals they stop that they are not being detained and are free to go (and not answer questions) until the officer says otherwise.

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