Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s powerful dissent in Utah v. Strieff

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Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s powerful dissent in Utah v. Strieff

by Tiffany Wang, YWCA USA Digital Communications Coordinator

In a powerful, scathing dissent yesterday in an illegal-stop-and-search case, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote passionately on police authority and harassment, individual rights, racial profiling, and unconstitutional searches. The case, Utah v. Strieff, weighed whether evidence uncovered during an unlawful police stop could be used in court against the person in possession of it. In a 5-3 vote, the court decided that an arrest warrant discovered during the stop legitimized it, making the evidence admissible despite the initial stop. Sotomayer, clearly, did not agree with this, warning, 

“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.”

Sotomayor questioned the premises of the majority ruling, that the stop was essentially an “isolated instance of negligence” and not common or systemic. “Respectfully, nothing about this case is isolated,” she wrote, and noted how common outstanding warrants are, and how widely abused, citing the Justice Department Civil Rights Division’s report on excessive warrants in Ferguson, Missouri, where 16,000 out of 20,000 people had outstanding warrants against them for mostly minor infractions. She wrote that such investigations have shown “how these astounding numbers of war­rants can be used by police to stop people without cause,” and went into detail of the things that can happen to a person during such a stop. “The indignity of the stop if not limited to an officer telling you that you look like a criminal…The officer’s control over you does not end with the stop.”

And though the defendant in this particular case was white, Sotomayor made a point to note that police stops disproportionately involve people of color, that “it is no secret that people of color are disproportionate victims of this type of scrutiny.” Citing Ta-Nehisi Coates, W.E.B. DuBois, and James Baldwin, she framed the court decision in its racial and socioeconomic context and spoke directly of the racial dimensions of policing.

“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.” 

Reports of profiling and of illegal stops and seizures are, unfortunately, nothing new, and they are often disturbing. While high profile incidents and reporting of incidents often focus on black and brown men, women of color are also targeted. As Jezebel noted, there are numerous current lawsuits over unconstitutional drug searches involving unacceptable, invasive searches of female bodies; just last week, an 18-year-old filed a civil complaint regarding an illegitimate drug search, followed by a “forceful” and extensive cavity search. The intersection of race, gender, and violence is painfully important to consider in discussions of racial profiling and targeting. As YWCA CEO Dara Richardson-Heron noted, “Women’s experiences of targeting by law enforcement receive far less attention but are nonetheless very real. Addressing all aspects and impacts of racial profiling is critical to addressing racial injustice and will bring about lasting change.”

Yesterday’s SCOTUS decision will undoubtedly have a lasting impact on women and men of color in our communities. What will be the implications of this ruling on racial profiling, on unconstitutional stops and searches? What sort of impact will it have on racial injustice? In Sotomayor’s dissent, she ends with a powerful warning that should be read in full: