Supreme Court May Have Paved the Way for Further Victimization of People of Color

Written by

Roma Patel
Roma Patel Roma Patel is an Economic Policy Intern at the Center for Global Policy Solutions, where she focuses on evidence-based policy research and reform to promote equal and full rates of market empowerment for marginalized populations. Her interests include economic justice, criminal justice, and legal justice for all people. Roma gradated from Cornell University in 2016 with a triple major in Philosophy, Psychology, and Performing Media Arts. She hopes to attend law school in Fall 2018.

“The standard adage teaches hard cases make bad laws…. I fear that these cases suggest a corollary: Shocking cases make too much law.”
— Justice Sonya Sotomayor, January 2016

In words that time will deem historic and progressive, Justice Sotomayor offered an insightful dissent last month in the Supreme Court’s review of Utah vs Strieff.

A Utah man, Edward Strieff, challenged his arrest in 2006 on the basis that the traffic stop in which evidence of drug-related activity was found was itself illegal and therefore the evidence was inadmissible. In the recent 5-3 majority ruling, the Court struck down this defense, insisting that while the stop was in fact unconstitutional, the outstanding arrest warrant (for a traffic violation) uncovered during the initial detainment process validated the proceeding search and seizure of drug evidence found on Strieff.

Justice Sotomayor, in a dissent that reflects the growing level of distrust between minorities and law enforcement, wrote that this ruling validates police stops that “corrode all our civil liberties and threaten all our lives.” Her words echo the sentiment she expressed in a previous dissent involving a case of police misconduct. When the Court struck down the Leija family’s lawsuit against a police officer for the use of excessive force that caused the death of Israel Leija during a high-speed car chase over a misdemeanor probation violation, Justice Sotomayor wrote: “This Court’s precedents clearly establish that the Fourth Amendment is violated unless the ‘governmental interests’ in effectuating a particular kind of seizure outweigh the ‘nature and quality of the intrusion on the individual’s Fourth Amendment interests.’” Sotomayor concluded, “By sanctioning a ‘shoot first, think later’ approach to policing, the Court renders the protections of the Fourth Amendment hollow.”

Now, using strong words that reflect current sentiments between law enforcement and the people of color, Sotomayor writes, “[the majority ruling] 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 [prison] state, just waiting to be cataloged.”

In the full 12-page dissent, Sotomayor explicitly stood up for those marginalized populations that will be most affected by the ruling, saying: “It is no secret that people of color are disproportionate victims of this type of [police] scrutiny.”

Her clear and compelling narrative brings to mind the fundamental notion behind today’s Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. At their core, both BLM and the Court’s decision are lessons in the relationship between equality and fairness. What critics of BLM fail to realize when they chide the movement as “unequal” is that sometimes inequality is necessary to fairness. Sometimes the disadvantages of one particular, marginalized group demand preferential treatment so that the group can be at the same level as that occupied by a privileged social class.

Similarly flawed is the obscured lens through which the Court reviewed the case. The majority opinion failed to consider the disparate impact of this seemingly “neutral” ruling on people of color. People of color, particularly Black men, are systemic victims of our justice system. Not only are they much more likely to be stopped and searched “randomly” by law enforcement, but they serve harsher, longer sentences than White counterparts for the same offenses. In fact, in 2011, Blacks and Hispanics were three times more likely to be searched in a traffic stop than Whites. Post-arrest prison sentences for similar crimes were 20 percent longer for Blacks than Whites.

As Justice Sotomayor expertly explains, allowing prosecutors to enter evidence obtained during an unconstitutional stop and search further victimizes people of color since they tend to come from low-income communities and generally have a greater number of minor violations such as unpaid traffic tickets than affluent, White individuals. So an unpaid parking fine can now validate illegal searches and serve as a one-way ticket to jail time.

To contextualize the error in the majority ruling’s reasoning, imagine the case of a “neutral” workplace policy that requires each employee to stand while packaging goods for shipping. A paraplegic employee at this company would not be able to comply with this policy. If she was fired for her disability, it would be an example of a case in which a policy designed to affect everyone equally fell unfairly on a vulnerable population.

The law has set a precedent of reasonable accommodations for disability (i.e. accommodation in a classroom for a child with a learning disability), but has not expanded that same sort of reasoning to minorities who continue to face structural barriers to justice. Justice Sotomayor’s dissent rests on the premise that these people have suffered generations of unequal access not only to impartial treatment under the court systems but also to educational and employment opportunities. In such contexts, equality requires preferential treatment. It is a question of equity.

Taken together, the majority opinions in recent cases of police misconduct clearly indicate the Supreme Court’s preference for giving law enforcement the benefit of the doubt. Justice Sotomayor’s dissents instead detail the grievances of marginalized people and warn against our nation’s trajectory toward the abrogation of the Fourth Amendment.