Stotomayor gives important dissent on profiling and the endangered Fourth Amendment
Justice Sonia Sotomayor gave an impassioned defense of the Fourth Amendment in a case that did not go the way it should have, in the case of Utah v. Strieff.
Strieff itself involves a fairly simple question of constitutional law. Typically, when police illegally stop an individual on the street without reasonable suspicion, any fruits of that stop—such as the discovery of illegal drugs—must be suppressed in court, because the stop was “unreasonable seizure” under the Fourth Amendment. Strieff gave the justices an opportunity to affirm this constitutional rule. But instead, Justice Stephen Breyer joined the court’s four conservatives to add a huge loophole to that long-established doctrine. In an opinion by Justice Clarence Thomas, the court found that if an officer illegally stops an individual then discovers an arrest warrant—even for an incredibly minor crime, like a traffic violation—the stop is legitimized, and any evidence seized can be used in court. The only restriction is when an officer engages in “flagrant police misconduct,” which the decision declines to define.
Sotomayor, who dominated oral arguments in Strieff, refused to let the majority get away with this Fourth Amendment diminution without a fight. In a stunning dissent, Sotomayor explains the startling breadth of the court’s decision. “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,” Sotomayor writes, in a dissent joined in part by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. “If the officer discovers a warrant for a fine you forgot to pay, 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.”
“Most striking about the Court’s opinion,” Sotomayor notes “is its insistence that the event here was ‘isolated,’ with ‘no indication that this unlawful stop was part of any systemic or recurrent police misconduct.’ ” But in truth, “nothing about this case is isolated.” Sotomayor then dives into the widespread police misconduct that has dominated headlines for several years, focusing on the Department of Justice’s Ferguson report to demonstrate that “outstanding warrants are surprisingly common.”