Justice Sotomayor Slams U.S. Police State in Scathing Dissent

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Monday 5 to 3 to give courts expanded abilities to use evidence obtained illegally, but not without fierce dissent from Justice Sonia Sotomayor, whose powerful rejection of the decision invoked high-profile Black intellectuals including James Baldwin and Michelle Alexander as she spoke up for the rights of people of color in the United States.

The decision essentially empowers police to carry out unlawful searches, seizures and other misconduct. The case, known as Utah versus Strieff, involves evidence in a drug charge against a Utah man that was gathered in an unlawful stop.

The ruling means the court doesn’t have to disqualify the evidence even though it was collected illegally, reversing a Utah Supreme Court decision to have it thrown out of court.

But what stands out about the ruling is Sotomayor’s damning break from the majority to slam the decision for setting a dangerous precedent and paving the way to an expanded police state.

In her dissent, Sotomayor wrote that although the Utah defendant, Edward Strieff, is white, “it is no secret that people of color are disproportionate victims of this type of scrutiny. “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,” she wrote. “It 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 state, just waiting to be cataloged.”

Sotomayor also invoked prominent current and historic Black writers including W.E.B. Dubois, James Baldwin, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Michelle Alexander, author of "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness." “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.

Strieff, whose lawyers argued his constitutional rights were violated, was searched in 2006 in Salt Lake City based on an anti-narcotics suspicion. Only later did Detective Douglas Fackrell find out that Stieff had an outstanding warrant and arrested him. Evidence gathered through an unlawful search was at the foundation of his charges. As Sotomayor argued, “In his search for lawbreaking, the officer in this case himself broke the law.”

“We must not pretend that the countless people who are routinely targeted by police are ‘isolated,’” Sotomayor added, pointing to some 7.8 million outstanding warrants on federal and state records. “They are the canaries in the coal mine whose deaths, civil and literal, warn us that no one can breathe in this atmosphere.” Utah versus Strieff received relatively little attention before Sotomayor’s scathing dissent.


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