Sotomayor in fiery dissent: Illegal stops 'corrode all our civil liberties'

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Story highlights

  • Sotomayor said the decision in a Utah case gives police too much power to police
  • 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"

Washington (CNN)Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor on Monday issued a vehement dissent in a Fourth Amendment case -- writing that the majority's opinion sanctions police stops that "corrode all our civil liberties and threaten all our lives."

The fiery objection came on case where a Utah man challenged his arrest based on a stop that was later found to be unlawful. The 5-3 majority opinion, Sotomayor wrote, will have dramatic ramifications for law-abiding citizens targeted by police, especially minorities.
    "It is no secret that people of color are disproportionate victims of this type of scrutiny," she wrote. "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," she added. "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."
    With four major decisions due in the next week, including cases on affirmative action, abortion and immigration, Sotomayor's anger signals that what has been a quiet term since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia could get increasingly contentious.

    Utah man charged after illegal stop

    Utah man Edward Joseph Strieff Jr. was stopped by a police officer who was conducting surveillance on a house based on an anonymous tip about drug activity. After Strieff left the house, the officer detained him and ran his identification, finding an outstanding arrest warrant for a traffic violation.
    The officer then searched Strieff, finding methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia, and arrested him. Strieff challenged the conviction, saying the evidence came from an unlawful stop.
    While the court held that the initial stop was unconstitutional, due to lack of reasonable suspicion, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the majority that overturned the Utah Supreme Court and held that because the arrest warrant was valid, the evidence was admissible.
    Thomas portrayed the incident as the result of a couple "at most negligent" mistakes on the part of the officer, and downplayed its broader significance.
    "There is no indication that this unlawful stop was part of any systemic or recurrent police misconduct," he wrote. "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 Sotomayor said the case was anything but minor.
    "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 outstanding traffic warrants -- even if you are doing nothing wrong," she wrote.
    "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," she added.
    Sotomayor, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in most of her dissent, laid out an argument that the opinion allows law enforcement broad latitude to violate Americans' constitutional rights if they can find any small mark against them.
    Sotomayor is the first justice of Hispanic heritage and has spoken extensively about how her personal experiences have influenced both her private and public life. But she took care Monday to separate that from her dissent and cite her "professional experience" as a prosecutor and judge.
    She used visceral language to paint a picture of the invasion of privacy she believes is allowed by the decision.
    "This Court has given officers an array of instruments to probe and examine you," she wrote. "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."
    She continued that being stopped on the street is more than a small "indignity." She said the officer can search a citizens' bag, order him or her to stand "helpless," perhaps even conduct a "frisk."
    "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.'"
    Race played a major role in Sotomayor's dissent, although the man arrested in the case was white. The ramifications extend to all Americans but especially minorities, she wrote.
    "The white defendant in this case shows that anyone's dignity can be violated in this manner," Sotomayor wrote.
    Justice Elena Kagan also wrote a dissent joined by Ginsburg, while Justice Stephen Breyer joined the conservative panel of Thomas, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito and Anthony Kennedy. Kagan made a similar legal argument to Sotomayor, but used milder language to do so.