In a surprising 5-3 ruling Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that evidence obtained in an illegal search is admissible in court if a person is determined to have an outstanding warrant for arrest. The ruling essentially guts the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which has protected citizens against unlawful police searches.
The decision (pdf) stems from a case in Utah in which police stopped Edward Strieff for no particular reason except an assumption that he might have been involved in a drug deal. When the officer relayed Strieff’s personal information to a police dispatcher, it was discovered that he had an outstanding warrant for a traffic offense. The police officer then used that old warrant as a pretext to further detain and search Strieff, and the police found illegal drugs in his possession.
Under terms determined by the court in earlier decisions, this evidence was obviously illegally obtained. The police had no legal reason to stop Strieff aside from a hunch. What this ruling does is institutionalize “fishing expeditions” for police officers who have “hunches” but no evidence of wrongdoing. There are literally millions of American citizens with outstanding warrants for victimless crimes like parking tickets or jaywalking who will now be vulnerable to police searches. This ruling breathes new life into racially biased stop-and-frisk practices that have been widely condemned and discredited by civil libertarians, community activists and the courts, too. As Justice Sonia Sotomayor pointed out in her blistering dissent:
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 … 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.
Justice Clarence Thomas, to the surprise of no one, disagreed. Writing with a stunning disregard for the current debate regarding police misconduct in the United States, Thomas determined that the illegally obtained evidence in the Strieff case should be allowed because "there is no indication that this unlawful stop was part of any systemic or recurrent police misconduct. … To the contrary, all the evidence suggests that the stop was an isolated instance of negligence that occurred in connection with a bona fide investigation of a suspected drug house."
But the ruling essentially takes an obscure case in which “systemic or recurrent police misconduct” may or may not have been a factor but, in creating a legal precedent, then generalizes this approach to all policing—including departments where the federal government and other investigating bodies have found “systemic [and] recurrent police misconduct.”
The majority ruling in this case asks the public to give the benefit of the doubt to the police at the precise moment when investigation after investigation has revealed bad police behavior all over the United States. Police “misconduct,” including everything from brutality to racism to planting evidence and lying on behalf of fellow officers, is not isolated or rare but is pervasive in some of the largest police departments in the country.
In fact, there are 20 cities currently operating under a “consent decree” to reform misconduct or abuse found within their departments after investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice. These include not only small municipalities like Ferguson, Mo., but also large cities like Baltimore, Philadelphia, Cleveland and Los Angeles, to name only a handful. In Oakland, Calif., within the span of a week, the Police Department cycled through police chiefs because of recurring scandal and misconduct. After it was revealed that up to 28 officers had paid for sex with an 18-year-old prostitute, the mayor of Oakland, in a fit of exasperation, said, “I am here to run a Police Department, not a frat house.”
A recent report documenting misconduct by police in Chicago found “false arrests, coerced confessions and wrongful convictions are also a part of this history … lives lost and countless more damaged. These events and others mark a long, sad history of death, false imprisonment, physical and verbal abuse and general discontent about police actions in neighborhoods of color." The report ended on a morbid note that Chicago police’s “own data gives validity to the widely held belief the police have no regard for the sanctity of life when it comes to people of color.” Of course, the top blew off the Chicago Police Department when it was discovered that police had colluded to cover up the murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald when fellow Officer Jason Van Dyke shot the unarmed boy 16 times.
These reports are only the tip of the iceberg. At the precise moment when the nation’s attention is fully attuned to the crisis of police brutality, racism and misconduct, the Supreme Court provides a ruling that will, according to Justice Elana Kagan, “incentivize [police] to violate the Constitution.”
In most inner cities in the United States, there exists a police state in which the police can stop you, question you, arrest you and even kill you with impunity. This ruling will exacerbate the existing conditions of discrimination and inequality that shape all of law enforcement and the criminal-justice system today. It also speaks of the continued urgency and necessity of the Black Lives Matter movement against police terror in the U.S.
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor is assistant professor of African-American studies at Princeton University and author of From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation.