Sonia Sotomayor cited ‘The New Jim Crow’ in a dissent that's the best thing you’ll read today

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Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor added to her growing list of notable dissents on Monday with a blisteringly fierce objection to a major Fourth Amendment decision. Sotomayor's dissent touched on individual rights, police authority, and how people of color feel when they're constantly stopped, searched and catalogued by the state.

For good measure, she cited seminal civil rights texts ranging from The Souls of Black Folk to The New Jim Crow.


At issue was Utah v. Strieff, a case involving a 2006 narcotics stop, during which Edward Strieff Jr was detained by law enforcement based on a vague anonymous tip regarding possible narcotics activity in the area. When Detective Douglas Fackrell ran Strieff's name and learned he was subject to an outstanding warrant for an unrelated traffic violation, he arrested Strieff, searched him, and ultimately found drugs on his person.

In a 5-3 ruling on Monday, the Supreme Court overturned a Utah Supreme Court decision finding that the circumstances of Strieff's stop were illegal, thereby disqualifying the evidence collected against him. Instead, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote:

To enforce the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against “unreasonable searches and seizures,” this Court has at times required courts to exclude evidence obtained by unconstitutional police conduct. But the Court has also held that, even when there is a Fourth Amendment violation, this exclusionary rule does not apply when the costs of exclusion outweigh its deterrent benefits.


In other words, the ends in the case justified the means.

Justice Sotomayor, to put it mildly, disagreed. In her dissent, she wrote that the high court's ruling was, instead, part of the continued erosion of individual's rights in this country.

This case involves a suspicionless stop, one in which the officer initiated this chain of events without justification. As the Justice Department notes, supra, at 8, many innocent people are subjected to the humiliations of these unconstitutional searches. The white defendant in this case shows that anyone’s dignity can be violated in this manner.

But, she continued, this violation is felt most acutely by people of color:

[It] is no secret that people of color are disproportionate victims of this type of scrutiny. See M. Alexander, The New Jim Crow 95–136 (2010). 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.


To illustrate her point, she went on to cite three other influential works by African American writers: W. E. B. Du Bois' The Souls of Black Folk, James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time, and Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me.

The implication of the court's ruling, Sotomayor explained, is that "you are not a citizen of a democracy but the subject of a carceral state, just waiting to be cataloged."


Sotomayor's dissent came as no surprise to observers of the case. During the oral arguments for Utah v Strieff earlier this year, she made a point of calling out the chilling potentialities raised by the precedent being set. As Slate reported at the time, Utah's attorney had requested there be a court rule in which the discovery of outstanding warrants means any "taint" of any illegality in an officer's detention of a subject is subsequently nullified. In response, Justice Sotomayor said,

If we announce your rule what stops us from becoming a police state and just having the police stand on the corner down here and stop every person, ask them for identification, put it through—and if a warrant comes up, searching them?


What's more, she went on, this scenario is even more potent in a community like Ferguson, MO., where:

…80 percent of the residents have five minor traffic warrants out, there may be a very good incentive for just standing on the street corner in Ferguson and asking every citizen: Give me your ID. Let me see your name. And let me hope, because I have an 80 percent chance that you’re going to have a warrant.


Justice Sotomayor channeled that same sense of outrage in her dissent. In its closing lines of her dissent, she invoked what had become one of the most recognizable phrases to come following the choking death of New Yorker Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD.

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