STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, MARCH 28, 2012…..Saying it would be a “great tribute” to Trayvon Martin, the unarmed Florida teen whose death has sparked a national debate about race and self-defense laws, Gov. Deval Patrick on Wednesday called for Bay State lawmakers to pass a years-old bill on racial profiling along with a toughening of the state’s seatbelt laws.
“I think that here in Massachusetts, if folks want to do something to honor this tragedy and to respond, the one thing they could do is take up the racial profiling proposal alongside the seatbelt law we’ve been talking about a long time around here,” he said. “Let’s get that passed. That’d be a great tribute.”
For years lawmakers have considered proposals that would permit police to pull over drivers who aren’t wearing their seatbelts. Today, drivers may only be fined for neglecting to wear a seatbelt if they are first pulled over for another offense. Proposals to make failure to buckle up a so-called primary offense have often run into concerns that police will use the statute as a pretext for racial profiling.
Although police departments and their supporters reject the suggestion that there is profiling, critics of a primary seatbelt law have demanded additional safeguards to prevent profiling from occurring.
According to aides, Patrick was alluding to a pair of bills (S 677 / H 2853) that would codify a ban on racial profiling, which the proposals define as “the use by a state, municipal, college or university law enforcement officer or state, municipal, college or university police department of race, ethnicity, or national origin to any degree in deciding who should be subject to traffic stops, pedestrian stops, frisks and other types of bodily searches, interviews, and searches and seizures of motorists, passengers, and motor vehicles.”
The bills, sponsored by Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz (D-Jamaica Plain) and Rep. Byron Rushing (D-Boston), would also create a data review panel to comb through police traffic data and analyze whether profiling is occurring.
Patrick mentioned the proposal in response to a question about four Massachusetts legislators who wore hooded sweatshirts Wednesday to show solidarity with the family of Trayvon Martin, who was wearing a hoodie when he was shot and killed. Martin was killed by a volunteer neighborhood watchman, George Zimmerman, during a scuffle in which Zimmerman has argued he fired in self-defense. Police opted against arresting Zimmerman, contending they had no reason to doubt his story. Florida’s self-defense law, which permits residents to discharge a firearm if they believe they’re in physical danger, drew national scrutiny as a result.
“I think that a family that has been dealing with the kind of tragedy that the Martin family has been dealing with must take some comfort from the expressions of compassion and solidarity that have come from so many quarters, and I support that,” Patick said.
Rep. Benjamin Swan (D-Springfield), chairman of the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus and a cosponsor of the anti-profiling legislation, said he hoped Martin’s death would be a catalyst to getting the bill passed. He added that he anticipates the caucus pressing Speaker Robert DeLeo on the bill as well.
A proposal in Massachusetts to adopt a similar self-defense law to Florida’s – known as “Stand Your Ground – drew scrutiny this week as well. The proposal, filed by Sen. Stephen Brewer (D-Barre), is awaiting action in the Committee on the Judiciary.
The bill would permit a Massachusetts resident to use “deadly force” “if he or she acted in the reasonable belief that an assailant was about to inflict great bodily injury or death upon themselves or upon another person who also had a right to be in the location.”
Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel Conley said Wednesday he did not support that proposal.
“We have strong laws today that when someone uses self-defense appropriately. I believe that law is effective and sufficient, so I personally don’t support it,” he said.