Sotomayor's Blistering SCOTUS Dissent Warns America Is Turning Into a Prison State

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor strongly disagreed with the majority as she passionately denounced a ruling on unreasonable search and seizures.


A 5-3 majority ruled that prosecutors may present evidence unlawfully collected by police officers to reverse a Utah Supreme Court decision, and Justice Clarence Thomas, who wrote the majority opinion, argued that “the costs of exclusion outweighs its deterrent benefits.”

Sotomayor and Justice Elena Kagan each wrote a dissent, and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined portions of each.

In her dissent to the ruling in Utah v. Strieff, which revolved on the matter of reasonable suspicion, Sotomayor cited James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folks and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me to describe what’s it’s like to live in constant fear of “suspicionless stops” as a person of color.

“Although many Americans have been stopped for speeding or jaywalking, few may realize how degrading a stop can be when the officer is looking for more,” wrote Sotomayor. “This Court has allowed an officer to stop you for whatever reason he wants—so long as he can point to a pretextual justification after the fact.”

Sotomayor said the court’s ruling had essentially classified all Americans as inmates in the prison-industrial complex.

“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,” Sotomayor 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.”

She said the court had ignored mountains of evidence that police routinely harass some Americans with unreasonable searches—and she warned that legitimizing those stops undermined democracy.

“We must not pretend that the countless people who are routinely targeted by police are ‘isolated,'” Sotomayor wrote. “They are the canaries in the coal mine whose deaths, civil and literal, warn us that no one can breathe in this atmosphere.”

Read the dissent here.

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