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Sotomayor nods to Black Lives Matter in biting dissent of illegal search ruling

In the majority opinion of the US Supreme Court, evidence collected during illegal search and seizure is admissible. Critics say the ruling goes too far in expanding the powers of police.

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    Justice Sonia Sotomayor, shown here at a 2012 event at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, wrote an impassioned dissent opinion Monday after the Supreme Court ruled that evidence police obtain through wrong or illegal search and seizures can be used against defendants in some cases.
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Evidence police obtain through wrong or illegal search and seizures can be used against defendants in some cases, a majority of the US Supreme Court ruled Monday, in a controversial decision that critics say infringes on civil liberties.

In a 5-3 decision, the court found a Utah police officer’s unlawful stop and search of Joseph Edward Strieff in Salt Lake City shouldn’t negate the warrant the officer, detective Doug Fackrell, discovered for Mr. Strieff’s arrest and the methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia he found on Strieff.

In the majority opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas said Mr. Fackrell’s discovery of the warrant “attenuated the connection between the unlawful stop and the evidence seized incident to arrest.”

“While Officer Fackrell’s decision to initiate the stop was mistaken, his conduct thereafter was lawful,” wrote Justice Thomas.

In Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s dissent, she condemned Thomas’s majority opinion and the police conduct it allows, which she wrote turns America into a “carceral state” because the citizens of this democracy will be subject to searches at any time. As the nation contends with questions the Black Lives Matter movement has surfaced, Sotomayor’s dissent shows the subject of police misconduct, especially in profiling citizens, has reached at least some of the high court.

“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,” 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,” continued Sotomayor. “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.”

In the case, Utah vs. Strieff, an anonymous tip of “narcotic activity” in a home led police to surveillance it, according to The New York Times. After Strieff left the house, Officer Fackrell stopped his vehicle “based on what the state later conceded were insufficient grounds, making the stop unlawful.” However, Fackrell found a warrant for Strieff for a minor traffic violation. He arrested Strieff, searched him and found methamphetamines and drug paraphernalia on him.  

The Utah Supreme Court found the drugs could not be used to incriminate Strieff given the unlawful stop.

Strieff is white. Sotomayor's dissent, however, focused particularly on "suspicionless stops" against people of color, invoking James Baldwin's "The Fire Next Time," W.E.B. Du Bois's "The Souls of Black Folks," and Ta-Nehisi Coate's "Between the World and Me," as Vox reported.

Sotomayor wrote that “suspicionless stops” are significant because “outstanding warrants are increasingly common.” A Justice Department report from 2015 found that 16,000 of Ferguson, Mo.’s 21,000 residents had outstanding warrants, many of which were for unpaid traffic fines.

As Black Lives Matter has called police miconduct into question, Justin Driver, a law professor at the University of Chicago, told The New York Times Sotomayor’s dissent was “the strongest indication we have yet that the Black Lives Matter movement has made a difference at the Supreme Court – at least with one justice.”

Others, however, previously worried that Black Lives Matter’s criticism of the criminal justice system – of systemic racism against blacks – goes too far, as The Economist wrote in August, suggesting that the current president has addressed the problem with more nuance. 

“Unfortunately, America’s criminal-justice problems are deep and systemic, and there is indeed troubling evidence of racism. But it is inaccurate to present these problems as the result of an organised conspiracy by all white people to hold down blacks,” wrote the publication. “That is something that Barack Obama, whose speeches on race this year have been thoughtful and brilliantly articulated, appears to understand. Those who wish to succeed him ought to bear this in mind.”

This report contains material from the Associated Press. 

[Editor's note: An earlier version of this story used an incorrect abbreviation for Missouri.]

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