Justice Sonia Sotomayor let loose a dissent to rival all dissents in a case involving the Fourth Amendment and police conduct on Monday. The majority opinion, Sotomayor wrote, “says that your body is subject to invasion while courts excuse the violation of your rights.”
Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the court’s opinion on behalf of five justices, including all of the other Republican appointees and Democratic appointee Justice Stephen Breyer. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined most of Sotomayor’s dissent, as well as a separate dissent by Justice Elena Kagan.
Sotomayor’s dissent cites the Department of Justice’s report from Ferguson, Missouri, on police misconduct and books like Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow,” Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me” and James Baldwin’s 1963 classic “The Fire Next Time.”
This Court has given officers an array of instruments to probe and examine you. When we condone officers’ use of these devices without adequate cause, we give them reason to target pedestrians in an arbitrary manner. We also risk treating members of our communities as second-class citizens. 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.
The indignity of the stop is not limited to an officer telling you that you look like a criminal. … If the officer thinks you might be dangerous, he may then “frisk” you for weapons. This involves more than just a pat down. As onlookers pass by, the officer may “feel with sensitive fingers every portion of [your] body. A thorough search [may] be made of [your] arms and armpits, waistline and back, the groin and area about the testicles, and entire surface of the legs down to the feet.”
The officer’s control over you does not end with the stop. If the officer chooses, he may handcuff you and take you to jail for doing nothing more than speeding, jaywalking, or “driving [your] pickup truck . . . with [your] 3-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter . . . without [your] seatbelt fastened.” At the jail, he can fingerprint you, swab DNA from the inside of your mouth, and force you to “shower with a delousing agent” while you “lift [your] tongue, hold out [your] arms, turn around, and lift [your] genitals.” Even if you are innocent, you will now join the 65 million Americans with an arrest record and experience the “civil death” of discrimination by employers, landlords, and whoever else conducts a background check. And, of course, if you fail to pay bail or appear for court, a judge will issue a warrant to render you “arrestable on sight” in the future.
“It is no secret that people of color are disproportionate victims of this type of scrutiny,” Sotomayor continues, citing Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me:
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.
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. They are the ones who recognize that unlawful police stops corrode all our civil liberties and threaten all our lives. Until their voices matter too, our justice system will continue to be anything but.
Read Sotomayor’s full opinion here.