Justice Sonia Sotomayor Evokes Baldwin, Coates in Blistering Dissent on Illegal Stops

By Sameer Rao Jun 21, 2016

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor cited the likes of James Baldwin and Ta-Nehisi Coates in her sharp dissenting opinion on the Court’s June 20 decision in Utah v. Strieff, which allows for the use of illegaly-obtained evidence.

The case originated with narcotics detective Douglas Fackrell’s 2006 arrest of Edward Strieff Jr. in Salt Lake City. According to Vox, Fackrell stopped Strieff after receiving an anonymous tip about potential drug activity. Fackrell then learned about an outstanding arrest warrant for a traffic violation, arrested Strieff and found methamphetamines and drug paraphernalia while searching him. The Utah Supreme Court ruled to suppress the evidence because, as Strieff’s attorney argued, it was obtained through an unlawful stop. The Supreme Court’s 5-3 decision reversed that ruling, with Justice Clarence Thomas writing in the court’s opinion that the evidence obtained did not violate the Fourth Amendment

The Fourth Amendment protects "[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures." Because officers who violated the Fourth Amendment were traditionally considered trespassers, individuals subject to unconstitutional searches or seizures historically enforced their rights through tort suits or self-help…. In the 20th century, however, the exclusionary rule—the rule that often requires trial courts to exclude unlawfully seized evidence in a criminal trial—became the principal judicial remedy to deter Fourth Amendment violations…. We hold that the evidence Officer Fackrell seized as part of his search incident to arrest is admissible because his discovery of the arrest warrant attenuated the connection between the unlawful stop and the evidence seized from Strieff incident to arrest.

Sotomayor’s dissent referenced Baldwin and Coates’ works to highlight the oppressive impact of unlawful stops, particularly for people 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. 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. …

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. See, e.g., W. E. B. Du Bois, "The Souls of Black Folk" (1903); J. Baldwin, "The Fire Next Time" (1963); T. Coates, "Between the World and Me" (2015).

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. 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.

We must not pretend that the countless people who are routinely targeted by police are "isolated." 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 full opinion here.