Sonia Sotomayor’s Fierce Dissent Stands Up For Victims Of Racial Profiling

As the Supreme Court’s 2015-2016 term winds down, things are getting pretty intense. SCOTUS is slated to release potentially groundbreaking rulings on some of the most controversial cases in recent history, and on Monday, Justice Sonia Sotomayor released an impassioned dissent on racial profiling in response to Utah v. Strieff, further heating things up on the bench. The case considered the constitutionality of evidence collected unlawfully by police being used as valid evidence in court.

In the wake of a deadly mass shooting that inspired so much Islamophobia and paranoia, SCOTUS unsurprisingly reversed the Utah Supreme Court decision that illegal stops invalidated evidence garnered from them in a 5-3 decision. Previously, such actions were perceived as a violation of the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits “unreasonable searches and seizures” and requires warrants to be judicially sanctioned and supported by probable cause, as opposed to racial or ethnic identity. This means that if a police officer were to illegally stop you on the street without reasonable suspicion, any findings heeded by said stop (eg. illegal drugs) wouldn’t serve as valid evidence in court because the stop was “unreasonable seizure.”

According to Justice Clarence Thomas, who wrote the opinion, “the costs of exclusion outweighs its deterrent benefits,” those “deterrent benefits” probably being not punishing marginalized groups for and reinforcing unfair stereotypes about them. Naturally, being the progressive slayer of dragons she is, Sotomayor took issue with both the ruling’s attack on individual rights and its disproportionate effect on African Americans and other minorities.

Sotomayor began by addressing how police racial bias, suspicion, and abuse disproportionately target black Americans and how, frankly, there’s no shortage of evidence of this. Her dissent reads:

“Most striking about the Court’s opinion is its insistence that the event here was ‘isolated,’ with ‘no indication that this unlawful stop was part of any systemic or recurrent police misconduct.’”

She continued to say that the Department of Justice “recently reported that in the town of Ferguson, Missouri, with a population of 21,000, 16,000 people had outstanding warrants against them,” explaining that investigations across the country have illustrated how such high amounts of warrants can be used by police to stop people without cause.

Following these statistics from the Department of Justice, about 76 percent of the residents of Ferguson, a predominantly black city, have effectively lost their Fourth Amendment rights — to Sotomayor, there’s no question who will be affected most by the Utah v. Strieff decision. “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,” Sotomayor noted, with regards to the dramatic expansion of police officers’ power and authority.

“It is no secret that people of color are disproportionate victims of this type of scrutiny,” she noted, before proceeding to powerfully reference both Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me.

“For generations, 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,” Sotomayor wrote.

It’s no secret that there exists a dramatic disparity between how black and brown youth are treated by police versus white kids. The list of black teenagers murdered by the police only continues to grow.

Further, Sotomayor noted that “unlawful ‘stops’ have severe consequences much greater than the inconvenience suggested by the name,” pointing out in graphic detail how the decision essentially enables any officer suspicious of you to give you “more than just a pat down,” and that “if the officer chooses, he may handcuff you and take you to jail for doing nothing more than speeding, jaywalking, or driving your children without your seatbelt fastened.

Additionally, Sotomayor pointed out the lasting, damning effects a single, unreasonable arrest can have on the rest of an individual’s life: “Even if you are innocent, you will now join the 65 million Americans with an arrest record and experience the … discrimination by employers, landlords, and whoever else conducts a background check … [I]f you fail to pay bail or appear for court, a judge will issue a warrant to render you ‘arrestable on sight’ in the future.”

Sonia Sotoma
CREDIT: Karen Bleier/Getty Images

“We also risk treating members of our communities as second-class citizens … [F]ew may realize how degrading a stop can be when the officer is looking for more,” Sotomayor wrote. Statistically speaking, the color of the individual’s skin will undoubtedly play a role in whether or not the officer decides to look “for more.”

Sotomayor chose to wind down the scathing dissent by addressing the race-neutral, universal issue of an individual’s right to privacy:

“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.”

Giving police the sweeping authority to make searches and arrests without legitimate reason could have devastating effects on all demographics. But there’s no shortage of evidence that strong, sometimes fatal racial bias exists among police officers, and now that an individual’s race or ethnicity can essentially serve as “probable cause,” this bias is certain to rear its ugly head.

Sotomayor’s full dissent and the full Supreme Court ruling can be read here.