The Supreme Court issued a decision yesterday, Utah v. Strieff, that erodes the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment protections and will intensify our country’s serious problem of racial profiling by law enforcement officers. Authored by Justice Thomas, the decision essentially rewards cops for racial profiling. Specifically, the Court legitimizes the police stopping a citizen on a whim or a hunch, demanding to see identification, and then if the cop’s hunch pans out, searching the person. This is a monumental shift in the law that is going to encourage far more racial profiling.
Here’s how the law works: The Bill of Rights was included in the constitution to protect us all from government oppression. One of those protections, the Fourth Amendment, protects people from “illegal searches and seizures.” The police violate your Fourth Amendment rights if they stop you and demand to see your license without any evidence that you’ve actually committed a crime. So, for example, the police can stop and demand to see your license when they have evidence that you are speeding or you appear to be trespassing; but they are not supposed to stop you and demand to see your license just because they don’t like your friends or the message on your t-shirt. The Fourth Amendment also prevents the police from making you stay with them while they search around for evidence that you may have done something illegal.
Until yesterday’s decision in Utah v. Strieff, the law said that if the police violated the Fourth Amendment and illegally held or searched you, then any evidence they found by violating your Fourth Amendment rights would not be admissible to prove criminal charges against you. The illegally obtained evidence is known as “the fruit of the poisonous tree.” In this way, the law was designed to discourage the police from violating people’s Fourth Amendment rights – if the cops cheat about the rules, they don’t get to use what they gained improperly.
But the new decision legitimizes law enforcement stopping you on the street for basically no reason at all, demanding to see your identification, and if it turns out that you are one of the 7.8 million Americans with an outstanding warrant (the vast majority of these warrants for minor offenses, like unpaid parking fines), they can search you – because, according to the decision, the ends justify the means and the Fourth Amendment violation essentially does not count. In places like Ferguson, MO, where law enforcement has criminalized being poor, about 16,000 out of 21,000 residents are subject to arrest warrants and now can be searched on an officer’s whim.
In her searing dissenting Opinion, Justice Sotomayor warned that this decision has a widespread negative impact: “This Court has given officers an array of instruments to probe and examine you. . . . [This case] says that your body is subject to invasion while courts excuse the violation of your rights.” Sotomayor goes on to speak compellingly of how, in particular the decision gives the green light to law enforcement to continue stopping and arresting people of color for little to no reason beyond racial and class profiling. She powerfully concludes, “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.” And with that, she hones in on exactly what is wrong with the Supreme Court’s decision: by legitimizing racial profiling, it moves the justices system further from justice and away from the protections that the Bill of Rights was meant to provide to us all.