Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Subjects of a Carceral State

So the Supremes dropped a surprising decision yesterday (well, surprising in that Justice Breyer joined the four conservative justices) re the 4th amendment, outstanding warrants and evidence.

The Supreme Court ruled on Monday that evidence found by police officers after illegal stops may be used in court if the officers conducted their searches after learning that the defendants had outstanding arrest warrants.

Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the majority in the 5-to-3 decision, said such searches do not violate the Fourth Amendment when the warrant is valid and unconnected to the conduct that prompted the stop.

Justice Thomas’s opinion drew a fiery dissent from Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who said that “it is no secret that people of color are disproportionate victims of this type of scrutiny.”

“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.”

“The court today holds that the discovery of a warrant for an unpaid parking ticket will forgive a police officer’s violation of your Fourth Amendment rights,” she wrote. “Do not be soothed by the opinion’s technical language: This case allows the police to stop you on the street, demand your identification and check it for outstanding traffic warrants — even if you are doing nothing wrong.

“If the officer discovers a warrant for a fine you forgot to pay,” she continued, “courts will now excuse his illegal stop and will admit into evidence anything he happens to find by searching you after arresting you on the warrant.”

Justice Sotomayor added that many people were at risk. Federal and state databases show more than 7.8 million outstanding warrants, she wrote, “the vast majority of which appear to be for minor offenses.” There are, she added, 180,000 misdemeanor warrants in Utah. And according to the Justice Department, about 16,000 of the 21,000 residents of Ferguson, Mo., are subject to arrest warrants.
The majority opinion, written by Thomas in his usual stodgy, mundane, poorly reasoned manner, won't be remembered for anything or by anyone. And while the majority of the coverage is on Sotomayor's dissent, this analysis suggests that the 4th amendment, while weakened, is still intact when it comes to random stops and may not be quite as far reaching as the mainstream media analysis suggests. 

Nonetheless, it seems to me Sotomayor's "fiery dissent" was written not so much for the masses as it was a direct broadside at Thomas himself.
“The white defendant in this case shows that anyone’s dignity can be violated in this manner,” she wrote. “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 back to a stranger—all out of fear of how an officer with a gun will react to them.”

Few institutions in American life have grappled with race and racism like the U.S. Supreme Court, for better or worse, but rarely does it speak about it with this level of detail. Sotomayor’s dissent also ends with what could be read as a veiled nod to the Black Lives Matter movement.

“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,” she wrote, citing a 2002 book by two legal scholars who argued abuses against people of color often foreshadow broader injustices. (One could also read it as a reference to the death of Eric Garner.)
As the legal analysis noted, no one joined part IV of her dissent, and so far I can't find much analysis about why Breyer, usually a liberal stalwart on these things, joined the majority. 

But it's a sad day when an illegal stop and any evidence of present criminality gathered, can be admitted into court by virtue of the fact that an outstanding warrant exists (unrelated to the reason you are being stopped). Post hoc ergo propter hoc, I think they call it.

Or as Sotomayor more bluntly put it, just another extension of the carceral or garrison state we live in today. Yes, the 4th amendment still lives, but barely.

The case is Utah v. Strieff (2016)

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