Art by Dawn Blagrove
On September 1, the Supreme Court of North Carolina issued its ruling in State v. Jeremy Johnson, a case which considered the proper framework for a court to analyze allegations by a criminal defendant that a police officer’s decision to investigate or take enforcement action against them was improperly motivated by race. Johnson involved a Black man convicted of drug possession, who was initially investigated on suspicion of trespassing after a Raleigh police officer observed him sitting parked in his car at an apartment complex. If you are a criminal defense attorney interested in developing evidence related to racial profiling in your cases, please contact Emancipate NC Senior Counsel Ian Mance for assistance.
Although Emancipate NC did not represent Mr. Johnson, our organization has a long history with this case and litigated it as amicus counsel in support of his claim. Emancipate NC attorney Ian Mance testified as a defense witness in pre-trial suppression hearings in 2018, developing and introducing the statistics that were later at issue on appeal. These statistics showed that 82% of all traffic stops made by Johnson’s arresting officer, B.A. Kuchen of Raleigh PD, involved Black motorists in a city that was then 28% Black. Emancipate NC attorney Elizabeth Simpson briefed the case at the N.C. Court of Appeals, which issued two opinions in April and December of 2020, and again at the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court that agreed to hear Johnson was very different from the Republican majority Court that ultimately decided the case without issuing a majority opinion. As a result, Johnson represents a missed opportunity for civil rights. Nevertheless, the case does help clarify several questions that are relevant to the development of strategies that can effectively challenge the practice of racial profiling in the courts. This morning, Emancipate NC published a detailed legal analysis of the case on our website, including our key takeaways and practice tips for attorneys who wish to challenge selective enforcement in the future. Among the main conclusions: The state constitution prohibits racial profiling. Online platforms like NCCopWatch.org enable the accurate identification of individual officer stop and search data for evidentiary purposes. Trial courts continue to have discretion regarding how and when to consider this data. The state’s driving population is whiter than its residential population, so most racial enforcement disparities are even greater than they appear. There is no “same behavior” standard in selective enforcement claims, as the trial court had suggested; however, additional evidence, beyond raw officer stop data, may be necessary to support claims of profiling in cities with multiple patrol districts.
To read Emancipate NC’s full analysis of State v. Johnson, click here.