The Supreme Court may not be complete, but that doesn’t mean they are any less capable of causing a firestorm. In what seems to be an incredibly short-sighted decision, a major pillar of the United States Constitution has been all but gutted. Here’s the information from the New York Times editorial board…
The Fourth Amendment protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures by the government — or that’s how it works in theory, anyway.
In practice, though, court decisions over several decades have created so many exceptions to this constitutional principle as to render it effectively meaningless in many real-world situations.
On Monday, the Supreme Court further weakened the Fourth Amendment by making it even easier for law enforcement to evade its requirement that stops be based on reasonable suspicion. The justices ruled 5 to 3 that a police officer’s illegal stop of a man on the street did not prevent evidence obtained from a search connected to that stop to be used against him.
The case, Utah v. Strieff, started when the police in Salt Lake City got an anonymous tip of drug activity at a house. An officer monitoring the house became suspicious at the number of people he saw entering and leaving. When one of those people, Edward Strieff, left to walk to a nearby convenience store, the officer stopped him and asked for his identification. A routine check revealed that Mr. Strieff had an outstanding “small traffic warrant.” The officer arrested him based on that earlier warrant, searched him and found drugs in his pockets.
The State of Utah agreed that the initial stop was illegal, because it was not based on reasonable, individual suspicion that Mr. Strieff was doing anything wrong. Instead, the state argued that the discovery of the valid warrant — after the illegal stop — got around the Fourth amendment violation.
The Utah Supreme Court rightly rejected this argument, but that decision was overturned in a majority opinion written by Justice Clarence Thomas. The officer’s lack of any specific suspicion of Mr. Strieff, Justice Thomas wrote, was a result of “good-faith mistakes.” The illegal stop was, at worst, “an isolated instance of negligence.”
So basically, police can suspect anything they want about an individual, and use that information as an excuse to detain them, check for warrants, and then quite possibly disrupt the entirety of their life. And I suppose if one has never been profiled by the police, and never had any reason to think that they would be, this judgement seems rather sensible. It’s not like police officers ever make mistakes, or use their judgement in an unfair way, right?
It’s important to note here that this was a 5 to 3 decision by the court, with Justices Clarence Thomas (who wrote the majority opinion), Stephen Breyer, Anthony Kennedy, John Roberts, and Samuel Alito in the majority. The three dissenters? Justices Elena Kagen, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor.
So at least on the face of it, gender appears to be a factor. But let’s spend a brief moment to also discuss the court’s only true racial minority, Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Remember during her confirmation, the whole firestorm around being “Wise Latina“? In her dissenting opinion to this case, that wisdom shines through like never before. Directly from Justice Sotomayor’s dissent…
The Court today holds that the discovery of a warrant for an unpaid parking ticket will forgive a police officer’s violation of your Fourth Amendment rights. Do not be soothed by the opinion’s technical language: This case allows the police to stop you on the street, demand your identification, and check it for outstanding traffic warrants—even if you are doing nothing wrong. If the officer discovers a warrant for a fine you forgot to pay, courts will now excuse his illegal stop and will admit into evidence anything he happens to find by searching you after arresting you on the warrant. Because the Fourth Amendment should prohibit, not permit, such misconduct, I dissent.
The officer’s control over you does not end with the stop. If the officer chooses, he may handcuff you and take you to jail for doing nothing more than speeding, jaywalking, or “driving [your] pickup truck . . . with [your] 3-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter . . . without [your] seatbelt fastened.” Atwater v. Lago Vista, 532 U. S. 318, 323–324 (2001). At the jail, he can fingerprint you, swab DNA from the inside of your mouth, and force you to “shower with a delousing agent” while you “lift [your] tongue, hold out [your] arms, turn around, and lift [your] genitals.” Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders of County of Burlington, 566 U. S. ___, ___–___ (2012) (slip op., at 2–3); Maryland v. King, 569 U. S. ___, ___ (2013) (slip op., at 28). Even if you are innocent, you will now join the 65 million Americans with an arrest record and experience the “civil death” of discrimination by employers, landlords, and whoever else conducts a background check.
By legitimizing the conduct that produces this double consciousness, this case tells everyone, white and black, guilty and innocent, that an officer can verify your legal status at any time. It says that your body is subject to invasion while courts excuse the violation of your rights. It implies that you are not a citizen of a democracy but the subject of a carceral state, just waiting to be cataloged. We must not pretend that the countless people who are routinely targeted by police are “isolated.” They are the canaries in the coal mine whose deaths, civil and literal, warn us that no one can breathe in this atmosphere. See L. Guinier & G. Torres, The Miner’s Canary 274–283 (2002). They are the ones who recognize that unlawful police stops corrode all our civil liberties and threaten all our lives. Until their voices matter too, our justice system will continue to be anything but.
What Justice Sotomayor says here can hardly be improved upon. It’s a shame that our nation’s Supreme Court has cleared the way for the “Civil Death” of millions of Americans, and the 4th Amendment of our Constitution. Sadly, the only ones who can affect this ruling are Congress, and it is far from a major election issue. Let’s hope others learn the truth of this ruling, and soon. But in the midst of such an atrocious oversight, at least those Americans most prone to police profiling had a few voices on the court to speak the truth.