Unlawful Search and Seizure
There is a very interesting discussion (and sometimes argument) to be had surrounding the role of courts in our country – one that is especially interesting to passionate civil rights lawyers like myself. We look back throughout our history and see that courts and their justices have been the catalyst for some of the most landmark and progressive movements in this country, and, yet, have also somehow been the opposite: reinforcing outdated or seemingly prejudiced laws in some of the most high-profile cases to come across their desks. Questions persist though: what role do justices play in the way our laws are shaped? What responsibility do they have to lead our moral society?
In my opinion, and the opinion of many others including our founding founders, their role is this county is undeniably huge. And this week’s news shows us why. I’m talking specifically about the minority dissent written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor in a case dealing with the 4th Amendment and unlawful search and seizure of a white man in Utah.
The court ruled 5-3 (with Justice Stephen Breyer joining with the standard conservative panel) that evidence obtained in an unlawful stop and illegal search was indeed admissible in court for an unrelated arrest warrant – a ruling that overturned a previous decision by the Utah Supreme Court. Like most cases that make it to the Supreme Court of the United States, the actual case that the ruling impacts is merely one aspect of the unfortunate decision, and in reality, the far-reaching precedent is of much more concern – especially to people who are often targets of biased policing.
“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.” – Justice Sotomayor
Her point is that if this type of policing can so impact the life of a white person in Utah who doesn’t have to deal with the outward discrimination of his skin color, gender, or national origin, it is sure to hugely impact impoverished and racially-diverse communities, especially in this time of seemingly constant turmoil between police departments and the citizens they are supposed to serve.
The Importance of Sotomayor’s Dissent
What makes Justice Sotomayor and her dissent so important in this matter is not just its content, which is outstanding, but the person from whom it comes. She’s the first Supreme Court Justice of Hispanic heritage, a shocking fact despite more than 55 million Hispanics and people of Hispanic origin currently living in the United States. She is also one of only four female justices in the Supreme Court’s history, despite a bench of over 110 past Justices. In fact, of those four female justices, three serve on the current court – with two having been appointed under our current President. With women and Hispanics making up more than 60% of the population of the United States, these are incredible, shameful numbers, yet very telling ones about our country and its history of ignoring minority voices and experiences until they can’t be ignored anymore.
We learn not only from Justice Sotomayor’s words, but also her groundbreaking tenure, that we are at a point in this country where race, gender, and sexual orientation are still characteristics on which people are unfairly judged – especially in the eyes of law enforcement. Through her words, we’re reminded that segregation, discrimination, and the marginalization of people are a constant reality, and one that cannot be ignored or swept under the rug. The courts must intervene.
In an institution that is so focused on language and the implications thereof, I can’t help but feel a special respect for not only the bravery of what Justice Sotomayor wrote, but the words she used when writing it. This kind of language, this kind of acknowledgement of reality is exactly the kind of thing we need in our courts – except we need it in the majority decision, not in the fiery dissent of the minority justice’s minority opinion.
This is just one of many topics I am passionate about. Please click here to see some of my other passions and pursuits.