Justice Sotomayor details ramifications of the decision
While many of us were being entertained by LeBron James, the election circus with its all-star clowns, or just looking the other way, the Supreme Court made a ruling on the Fourth Amendment that will have repercussions for years to come. By a vote of 5-3 the high court ruled that the Fourth Amendment doesn’t really mean what we thinks it means, thus making it easier to be harassed by the State and by extension ratifying and justifying capricious stop-and-frisk tactics by the police.
In other words, police can stop citizens for no reason at all, or simply because they just wants to stop you, and according to the law whatever evidenced is obtained in that illegal stop can be used against you. Stops have to supposedly be justifiable and reasonable of course, but anyone who has been profiled knows that is not necessarily the case.
Now someone may say, “What does that have to do with me? If you just keep your nose clean and you have nothing to hide, why should anyone be concerned?” But that is beside the point. The point is that the loosening of the requirements allow anyone to be stopped in the first place and asked for ID without a real or legally proscribe justification. That would be permissible in a totalitarian state but not a democracy as is supposed in the U.S.
This is not former Apartheid South Africa, where passes were required to go from one place to another. It is, however, what this ruling opens the door to, thus making it a really dangerous decision.
In an obscure case in Utah of all places (Utah v. Strieff), the police stopped a man leaving a house where the authorities suspected that drugs were being sold, but there was no hard evidence. When one of the occupants left the house and walked to a nearby store, one of the cops watching the house stopped him. There was no probable cause to stop this person, but the cop ran a quick check and discovered that he had a warrant for his arrest. As a result of the warrant the police were able to search the man and found dope on him and subsequently charged him with possession.
Strieff argued that the police couldn’t charge him because they had obtained their search illegally. Usually that is the case, that if police discover evidence that they did not lawfully obtain, it cannot be entered into evidence against a defendant. However, the Supreme Court ruled that the search and thus the evidence could be used because the police stop was reasonable.
As MPR’s Bob Collins put it,” If evidence can be used against you that is the result of an illegal stop by police, what’s to keep police from stopping you illegally?”
Justice Sonia Sotomayor in her dissent eloquently and pointedly describes the problem with this decision.
“This case involves a suspicionless stop, one in which the officer initiated this chain of events without justification. As the Justice Department notes, many innocent people are subjected to the humiliations of these unconstitutional searches. The white defendant in this case shows that anyone’s dignity can be violated in this manner. But it is no secret that people of color are disproportionate victims of this type of scrutiny.
“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. 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.”
For poor people, especially Black people and other people of color and immigrants who can’t avoid the slings and arrows of the ravages of capitalism accompanied by White Supremacy as well as their middle-class brethren, this is serious.
Mel Reeves welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mel Reeves was the community editor at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder until he passed away on January 6, 2022. He had a long and storied history working at the MSR.
Find more about Reeve’s life and legacy here: spokesman-recorder.com/category/remembering-mel-reeves.