Last Monday, the Supreme Court upheld the use of drug evidence that an officer found after he illegally stopped Edward Strieff, ran a warrant check and found a warrant for a minor traffic violation, then arrested and searched Mr. Strieff. Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented, writing that “it is no secret that people of color are disproportionate victims of this type of scrutiny.”
“This case tells everyone, white and Black, guilty and innocent, that an officer can verify your legal status at any time,” she wrote. “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.”
Writing for the five-member majority, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that the officer was “at most negligent” for stopping Mr. Strieff for insufficient reasons. He wrote “there is no evidence that Officer Fackrell’s illegal stop reflected flagrantly unlawful police misconduct.”
But Justice Sotomayor explained the decision significantly undermines the Fourth Amendment. “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,” she wrote. “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,” she continued, “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.”
Justice Sotomayor set out data showing that there are more than 7.8 million outstanding warrants, most of which are for minor offenses. She cited the Justice Department’s recent report finding that in Ferguson, Missouri, 16,000 of the city’s 21,000 residents have arrest warrants. “Justice Department investigations across the country have illustrated how these astounding numbers of warrants can be used by police to stop people without cause,” she wrote.
Most of Justice Sotomayor’s dissent was joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who also joined a separate dissent by Justice Elena Kagan. In the part of her dissent written only for herself, Justice Sotomayor detailed how the presumption of guilt and dangerousness burdens people of color.
“For generations,” she wrote, “Black and brown parents have given their children ‘the talk’ — instructing them never to run down the street; always keep your hands where they can be seen; do not even think of talking back to a stranger — all out of fear of how an officer with a gun will react to them.”
“We must not pretend that the countless people who are routinely targeted by police are ‘isolated,’” she wrote. “They are the canaries in the coal mine whose deaths, civil and literal, warn us that no one can breathe in this atmosphere. 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.”