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Police Already Have Broad Powers to Detain Us; and the Supreme Court Gave Them Even More

(Photo: Tony Webster/flickr/cc)

I don't want to end up like Alton Sterling.

Or Philando Castile. Or Eric Garner. Or Freddie Gray. Or Amadou Diallo. I don’t want to end up dead after a police stop, probably based on wrongful suspicion, which leads cowardly police officers to resort to unjustifiable force.

I don’t want to die like this. Nobody does.

But the statistical fact is that black men are likelier to be victims of the criminal justice system. Black men are victimized by lengthier sentences. They’re victimized daily by harassment and stop-and-frisk. And in the worst cases, they are victims of police who kill them, an act that is  rarely prosecuted.

On July 5, police killed Sterling. The next day police killed Castile. Two pointless deaths of black men, followed by the killing of five Dallas police officers by snipers during protests against police brutality.

We are at war with our selves, in part because of our inability, nay the unwillingness, to acknowledge the hard reality that black Americans are treated differently. Video showing the death of Alton Sterling clearly reveals that he was in custody and in submission when officers  shot him multiple times. Philando Castile was shot and killed the next day after being stopped  for a busted tail light.

Racism and power converge during a police stop, and the racist misuse of police power is (all too obviously) rampant.

And because I don’t want to end up dead after a police stop I can’t think about Alton Sterling or Philando Castile without also considering that only three weeks ago the Supreme Court weakened citizens’ protections against police harassment. The ruling essentially gives police, who already enjoy widespread power to stop citizens, even wider latitude to stop and frisk people on the street.

The case inspired Justice Sonia Sotomayor to pen a blistering dissent haranguing five other Justices that the time has come to speak honestly about racism in law enforcement. Or else, she said, the justice system risked “treating members of our communities as second class citizens” under the guise of upholding the law.

The case Utah v. Strieff dealt with a pedestrian who was subjected to an unlawful police search on the street. The officer Douglas Fackrell had no evidence that pedestrian Edward Strieff had committed any offense. Yet the officer illegally detained Streiff and demanded identification and found that Strieff had “a minor traffic violation.” The officer then frisked Strieff and discovered a small amount of illegal methamphetamine. Strieff was convicted of unlawful possession. The case was dismissed on appeal, on the accepted principle that police officers must legally obtain evidence. Unconstitutional evidence is tossed out of court.


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But the Supreme Court decision ruled by a 5-3 majority on the state’s appeal that while Strieff’s constitutional rights had indisputably been breached by an illegal stop and the breach may have been worsened by an illegal search, the officer who committed the constitutional infractions merely made “good faith mistakes,” which shouldn’t make illegally obtained evidence unconstitutional. If the reasoning sounds like a contradiction, that’s because it is.

In a dissent which was joined by the other women on the high court, Justices Elena Kagan and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sotomayor offered a bit of commonsense council: “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”

“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. 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 an outstanding traffic warrant—even if you have done nothing wrong,” wrote Sotomayor. She noted, “It’s no secret that people of color are disproportionate victims of this type of scrutiny” and cited Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow as a reference. Justice Elena Kagan wrote separately that the ruling “practically invites” police misconduct and unjustified searches.

It’s the willful ignorance that allows five members of the Supreme Court to ignore the pervasive reality of police brutality which draws Sotomayor’s particular ire. Systemic racist police harassment is usually the initial catalyst behind the chain of events that lead to the tragedies of  the kind which millions have seen on videotape—again and again.

Sotomayor’s words calling police harassment humiliating and outlining reasons that police harassment is a racial matter demand re-reading after this week’s violence.

I frankly consider myself fortunate that in all the many times I have been stopped on the flimsiest pretexts—sometimes with an explanation that I resembled someone who had purportedly committed a crime, other times with no explanation other than “Put your hands on the side of the car and spread your legs now”—the situation was resolved before I was arrested or killed.

I never leave my house without an ID. I expect to be stopped by police who will demand my ID. I am hardly unusual among African Americans who have reached the age of 50. I have become so accustomed to the possibility that I’ll be targeted that it has become the grudgingly accepted modus operandi. It should be a constitutional offense. Instead, it’s a way of life.

Sotomayor in her dissent recognizes that the time has come for something greater than legal  jargon for the sake of legal precedent and effectively accuses her fellow Justices who wrote the  majority opinion of hiding behind the law. Anyone interested can download the full text of  the Utah v. Strieff ruling, including Sotomayor’s blistering dissent.

Alton Sterling and Philando Castile are dead because America has not accepted that racism in the criminal justice system exists at a crisis level which demands immediate change and action.

Darryl Lorenzo Wellington

Darryl Lorenzo Wellington is a writing fellow for the Center for Community Change.

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