The U.S. Supreme Court this week in a 5-3 decision issued a major ruling siding with the unethical practices of law enforcement. The court, which (like other branches of government) has historically been dominated by elite white men, built on earlier rulings dating to the 1960s that have supported some police officers’ propensity to target people for the color of their skin, among other characteristics. This latest ruling, which was starkly split along gender lines — Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Elena Kagan were in the minority — adds another layer of legitimacy to bolster police who attempt to obtain evidence via unconstitutional searches and seizures.
In the particular case at stake was a Utah man named Edward Strieff, who was found to be in possession of methamphetamines after police arrested and searched him on the pretext of a minor traffic violation. The court ruled that the evidence obtained was admissible even though the police search was not based on reasonable suspicion of the crime.
While the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is meant to protect Americans from such “unreasonable searches and seizures,” the nation’s highest court has undermined that right through this latest ruling. Many American cities with large black and brown populations, such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, routinely stop people of color in numbers disproportionate to their populations. The Economist referred to the Supreme Court ruling as “a green light for police.”
Justice Sotomayor, the court’s first and only woman of color, in one of her most eloquent writings penned the dissenting opinion, citing the works of historic and contemporary black writers on race and racism including W.E.B. Dubois, James Baldwin, Michelle Alexander and Ta-Nehisi Coates. She railed against a ruling that says “your body is subject to invasion while courts excuse the violation of your rights” and questioned the very fabric of American democracy weakened by a decision that “implies that you are not a citizen of a democracy but the subject of a carceral state, just waiting to be cataloged.”
She ended by referencing the dying words of Eric Garner, the black New Yorker whose videotaped death by choking at the hands of New York Police Department (NYPD) officers sparked angry demonstrations nationwide: “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.”
For every person of color who has been treated with suspicion by authorities because of their race, Sotomayor’s words, given that they emanated from among the highest ranks of government, feel like a salve on a raw and open wound. In New York, the national epicenter of racial profiling, hundreds of thousands of black and brown residents every year have been routinely subjected to searches, the vast majority of which did not even lead to arrests. Finally, frustrated by this controversial “stop and frisk” program, New Yorkers elected Mayor Bill de Blasio, whose campaign platform was based in part on ending the program. Under de Blasio, the number of searches have dramatically dropped.
But racial profiling remains a huge problem all over the country, and not just in large urban metropolises. Dozens of states around the country have laws on the books that enable the police practice. For example, The New York Times last October investigated race-based police stops in the mixed-race North Carolina city of Greensboro and “uncovered wide racial differences in measure after measure of police conduct.”
The five men on the U.S. Supreme Court — John Roberts, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Anthony Kennedy and the supposedly liberal Stephen Breyer — have now made it easier to legally defend such anti-Fourth Amendment laws and practices in court. In issuing the minority dissenting opinion, Sotomayor proved her once-controversial comments to be true: “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.”
Wait, before you go…
Supreme Court justices at President Obama’s 2016 State of the Union address. (Evan Vucci / AP)
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