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United States v. Starks

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

April 16, 2015


For Leo T. Sorokin, Defendant: Victoria R. Kelleher, LEAD ATTORNEY, Salem, MA.

For Massachusetts Department of State Police, Movant: Glenn M. Rooney, LEAD ATTORNEY, Commonealth of Massachusetts, Framingham, MA; LaDonna J. Hatton, LEAD ATTORNEY, Massachusetts State Police, Framingham, MA; Sean W Farrell, LEAD ATTORNEY, Commonwealth Of Massachusetts - Dept.of State Police, Framingham, MA.

For Cynthia Dix, Interested Party: Michael P. Stapleton, Law Office of Michael P. Stapleton, Canton, MA.

For USA, Plaintiff: David G. Tobin, LEAD ATTORNEY, United States Attorneys Office, Boston, MA; Jordi deLlano, United States Attorney's Office MA, Boston, MA.


Leo T. Sorokin, United States District Judge.

Defendant Foster Starks, Jr.'s motion to suppress touches upon a serious issue that

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has been the subject of much discussion by, among others, Courts and law enforcement leaders: whether African Americans are stopped and searched by police because of their race. See, e.g., United States v. Leviner, 31 F.Supp.2d 23, 33 (D. Mass. 1998) (" Motor vehicle offenses, in particular, raise deep concerns about racial disparity. Studies from a number of scholars, and articles in the popular literature have focused on the fact that African American motorists are stopped and prosecuted for traffic stops, more than any other citizens." ); James B. Comey, Director, Fed. Bureau of Investigation, Hard Truths: Law Enforcement and Race (Feb. 12, 2015), available at (" Serious debates are taking place about how law enforcement personnel relate to the communities they serve, about the appropriate use of force, and about real and perceived biases, both within and outside of law enforcement." ). The pending motion, though, concerns a specific and narrow question: whether, as Starks asserts, Massachusetts State Trooper Jason Vital followed and then stopped the car Starks was driving because Starks is black.

Originally, another judge of this court denied Starks's motion to suppress on standing grounds. Doc. No. 312 at 2. The First Circuit reversed and remanded for an evidentiary hearing, United States v. Starks, 769 F.3d 83 (1st Cir. 2014), which the Court conducted on March 9 and 18, 2015. At the conclusion of the hearing on March 9, 2015, the Court denied Starks's Motion to Suppress insofar as it raised a Fourth Amendment challenge to the stop, finding that there was reasonable suspicion for the stop based on a registration discrepancy with respect to the color of the car. Doc. No. 354. Subsequently, the Court issued a written decision finding that the marked-lanes violation also provided probable cause to stop Starks's car. Doc. No. 352 at 1. The Court now proceeds to consider the second theory advanced in Starks's Motion to Suppress -- that this Court should suppress the evidence gathered as a result of the stop because Vital stopped Starks due to race in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Doc. No. 344 at 5, 13.

The basic facts are clear. On May 24, 2009, Starks was driving a car rented by a friend. He was alone. At approximately 11:05 p.m., Starks pulled over into the breakdown lane of Route 24. Vital saw this and pulled over to see if everything was all right. Before getting out of his cruiser, and pursuant to his customary practice, Vital " ran" the license plate for the car Starks was driving. While awaiting a response regarding the plate, Vital approached the rear of Starks's car and stopped near the rear driver's side wheel. Starks was standing just outside the driver's door. They spoke briefly. Starks explained he had dropped his cigarette on the floor, and he retrieved it as the two spoke. Vital confirmed that Starks did not need assistance. During this brief discussion, Vital observed that Starks was black. Nothing unusual or untoward occurred during the interaction, after which both men returned to their cars. Thereafter, Starks pulled back into the travel lanes, and Vital followed Starks's car for a relatively short distance. As he followed behind Starks, and perhaps as soon as he returned to his cruiser, Vital learned that the information listed on the car's registration differed in color (but not make or model) from the car Vital observed. Also, while following Starks, Vital observed Starks's car partially moving into a different lane several times. Citing both the registration discrepancy and the lane shifting, Vital initiated a traffic stop. Upon stopping the car, Vital obtained Starks's

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license, learned that it was revoked, and arrested him for this offense. Then, during an inventory search pursuant to established state police policy, Vital discovered a firearm and ammunition in a bag in the front seat of the car.

Nearly twenty years ago, the Supreme Court unanimously held that " ulterior motives," such as race-based discrimination, only impact the Fourth Amendment analysis " in the absence of probable cause." Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806, 811-12, 116 S.Ct. 1769, 135 L.Ed.2d 89 (1996) (emphasis in original). Although " the Constitution prohibits selective enforcement of the law based on considerations such as race[,] . . . the constitutional basis for objecting to intentionally discriminatory application of laws is the Equal Protection Clause, not the Fourth Amendment." Id. at 813. Therefore, once the Court found that Vital possessed probable cause to pull over Starks, Supreme Court precedent compelled the Court's finding that Vital did not violate Starks's Fourth Amendment rights. See Doc. Nos. 352, 354.

Whether suppression is the appropriate remedy for Equal Protection violations remains an open issue in the First Circuit. Starks, 769 F.3d at 90 n.6. Assuming for present purposes, without deciding, that suppression is a permissible remedy, Starks must prove not only that Vital's actions had a discriminatory effect, but also that Vital was motivated by a discriminatory purpose. Wayte v. United States, 470 U.S. 598, 608, 105 S.Ct. 1524, 84 L.Ed.2d 547 (1985). In his motion to suppress, Starks sought to establish discriminatory effect and discriminatory purpose through the use of statistical evidence. Starks obtained two sets of data regarding troopers in Area D-4 (Vital's area at all relevant times): the first set encompassed the period October 2008 to May 2009, and the second set encompassed the period June 2008 to May 2009.[1] Both sets of data contained breakouts by trooper and, for each trooper, the number of stops of white drivers and black drivers. While the first set of data made no distinction between stops during daytime and nighttime, the second set of data divided the data for each trooper between day and night stops. Starks retained an academic expert to analyze ...

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