Stephen Gottlieb: Sotomayor’s Dissent In Utah v. Strieff, Part I

Aug 30, 2016

I want to read you a portion of a recent dissent by Justice Sonia Sotomayor in which she explains what I think many do not understand about what happens when police stop people on the street.[1] I will skip her citations but you can read them on the website. She wrote the last part of her dissent for herself alone. I think it is well worth your hearing that portion of her dissent in Justice Sotomayor’s own words:

Writing only for myself, and drawing on my professional experiences, I would add that unlawful “stops” have severe consequences much greater than the inconvenience suggested by the name. 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. This Court has allowed an officer to stop you for whatever reason he wants—so long as he can point to a justification after the fact.[2] That justification must provide specific reasons why the officer suspected you were breaking the law,[3] but it may factor in your ethnicity,[4] where you live,[5] what you were wearing,[6] and how you behaved.[7] The officer does not even need to know which law you might have broken so long as he can later point to any possible infraction—even one that is minor, unrelated, or ambiguous.[8]

The indignity of the stop is not limited to an officer telling you that you look like a criminal.[9] The officer may next ask for your “consent” to inspect your bag or purse without telling you that you can decline.[10] Regardless of your answer, he may order you to stand “helpless, perhaps facing a wall with [your] hands raised.”[11] 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.’”[12]

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.”[13] 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.”[14] 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.[15] 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.[16]

[1] Utah v. Strieff, 136 S. Ct. 2056, 2069-71 (2016) (Sotomayor, J., dissenting).

[2] Whren v. United States, 517 U. S. 806, 813 (1996).

[3] Terry v. Ohio, 392 U. S. 1, at 21 (1968).

[4] United States v. Brignoni-Ponce, 422 U. S. 873, 886-887 (1975).

[5] Adams v. Williams, 407 U. S. 143, 147 (1972).

[6] United States v. Sokolow, 490 U. S. 1, 4-5 (1989).

[7] Illinois v. Wardlow, 528 U. S. 119, 124-125 (2000).

[8] Devenpeck v. Alford,  [2070]  543 U. S. 146, 154-155 (2004); Heien v. North Carolina, 574 U.S. ___,  (2014).

[9] See C. Epp et al., Pulled Over, at 5 (2014).

[10] See Florida v. Bostick, 501 U. S. 429, 438 (1991).

[11] Terry, 392 U. S., at 17.

[12] Id., at 17, n. 13.

[13] Atwater v. Lago Vista, 532 U. S. 318, 323-324 (2001).

[14] Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders of County of Burlington, 566 U. S. ___,  182 L. Ed. 2d 566, 573 (2012); Maryland v. King, 569 U. S. ___, 186 L. Ed. 2d 1, 30 (2013).

[15] Chin, The New Civil Death, 160 U. Pa. L. Rev. 1789, 1805 (2012); see J. Jacobs, The Eternal Criminal Record 33-51 (2015); Young & Petersilia, Keeping Track, 129 Harv. L. Rev. 1318, 1341-1357 (2016).

[16] A. Goffman, On the Run 196 (2014).

Steve Gottlieb is Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor of Law at Albany Law School and author of Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and the Breakdown of American Politics. He has served on the Board of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and in the US Peace Corps in Iran. Steve maintains a blog:

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