A new Supreme Court ruling will open the door for police to racially profile, according to Justice Sonia Sotomayor. The Monday ruling states that if a person is unlawfully stopped by a police officer and then found to have an outstanding warrant after the fact, the initial stop is still legal.
The case in point occurred in Utah, where Officer Douglas Fackrell had been monitoring a house for drug activity. Fackrell stopped Edward Strieff, a visitor at the house, without cause. Upon the stop, Fackrell discovered an outstanding warrant for a traffic violation for Strieff. Strieff was also found to be carrying methamphetamine.
Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the opinion for the majority and found that while the initial stop was without cause, the ends justified the means: “The discovery of that warrant broke the causal chain between the unconstitutional stop and the discovery of evidence by compelling Officer Fackrell to arrest Strieff.”
However, Justice Sotomayor, who called it “no secret that people of color are disproportionate victims” of racial profiling, believes this is in violation of the Fourth Amendment and will enableeven more racial profiling.
Arrests and prison sentences already leave Blacks at a considerable disadvantage, statistics show. A U.S. Sentencing Commission study found that prison sentences for Black men are 20 percent longer than those for white men who commit similar crimes. And Black drivers are more likely than white or Hispanic drivers to be pulled over and are also the most likely to not be given a reason why they were stopped.
One in every three Black males will go to prison at some point in their lives, compared to just one in six Latino males and one in 17 white males. This new ruling could contribute to an already existing problem, the justice believes.
“This Court has allowed an officer to stop you for whatever reason he wants so long as he can point to a pre textual justification after the fact,” Justice Sotomayor’s opinion states. “That justification must provide specific reasons why the officer suspected you were breaking the law, but it may factor in your ethnicity, where you live, what you were wearing, and how you behaved. The officer does not even need to know which law you might have broken so long as he can later point to any possible infraction even one that is minor, unrelated, or ambiguous.”
Justice Sotomayor also points out that, in this case, the defendant is white. So while this will have an adverse effect on white people as well, the repercussions against Blacks will be significant.
“The white defendant in this case shows that anyone’s dignity can be violated in this manner,” she writes. “But it is no secret that people of color are disproportionate victims of this type of scrutiny. 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 to a stranger all out of fear of how an officer with a gun will react to them.”
And according to Justice Sotomayor, such profiling cannot be chalked up to a rookie mistake in fact, in the case of uncertainty an officer should lean toward caution. “But the Fourth Amendment does not tolerate an officer’s unreasonable searches and seizures just because he did not know any better,” she states. “Even officers prone to negligence can learn from courts that exclude illegally obtained evidence. Indeed, they are perhaps the most in need of the education, whether by the judge’s opinion, the prosecutor’s further guidance, or an updated manual on criminal procedure. If the officers are in doubt about what the law requires, exclusion gives them an ‘incentive to err on the side of constitutional behavior.'”
Justice Sotomayor’s dissent also mentions the Justice Department’s investigation into Ferguson, Missouri, where the killing of Michael Brown at the hands of a police officer sparked an outcry regarding unfair treatment of Black citizens. The investigation found a pattern of unfair practices by the Ferguson Police Department, including ticketing Black citizens at disproportionate rates to white citizens. This practice was not isolated but was in fact business as usual, the justice writes.
Indeed, according to Attorney General Loretta Lynch, the behavior of the Ferguson police officers was “deliberate”: “They violated the Fourth Amendment by stopping people without reasonable suspicion, arresting them without cause and using unreasonable force. They made enforcement decisions based on the way individuals expressed themselves and unnecessarily escalated non-threatening situations. These violations were not only egregious they were routine.”
In some instances, this profiling can prove fatal. In 2010, Kalief Browder, who was 16 at the time, was arrested in New York under the presumption he had stolen a backpack. He spent more than two years in jail before even being offered a plea deal. Three years (more than two of which were spent in solitary confinement) and multiple suicide attempts later, Browder was released and all the charges against him were dropped. However, the young man ultimately took his own life because his time spent in prison had taken too much of a toll on his mental health, leaving him suffering from PTSD, depression and paranoia.
Justice Sotomayor further writes that the fact that Strieff ultimately had an outstanding warrant and drugs after the fact does not condone the officer’s initial actions.
“It is tempting in a case like this, where illegal conduct by an officer uncovers illegal conduct by a citizen, to forgive the officer,” she writes in her dissent. “After all, his instincts, although unconstitutional, were correct. But a basic principle lies at the heart of the Fourth Amendment: Two wrongs don’t make a right. When ‘lawless police conduct’ uncovers evidence of lawless civilian conduct, this Court has long required later criminal trials to exclude the illegally obtained evidence.”
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined parts of Justice Sotomayor’s dissent, and she joined all of a separate dissent presented by Justice Elena Kagan.