When I saw the news of Alton Sterling being killed by police last night, I was reminded of a dissent I’d recently read by Justice Sotomayor. I have a feeling the story the police give about why they approached Sterling, and why deadly force was used and is okay, will not being something with which I agree. Extrajudicial execution is NOT OKAY and it’s against what we’re supposed to stand for as Americans.
Each time, this is heartbreaking, for every victim of this kind of treatment by police, and every black person who watches these things happen over and over and feels hurt, less welcome, less cared for, and that they are treated as less than fully American. It breaks my heart, and I’m watching from the view of being white. I can only imagine what it feels like from the other side, and it’s too much.
And I know there are police officers out there every day not doing these horrible things, but even when acting within the law, our punishments have gotten out of control. Expecting citizens to be okay with being stopped anytime and forced to answer to a cop for seemingly no reason is ridiculous. And decades long prison sentences for theft, in which no humans were harmed or threatened, are horrific. It’s stuff. But that’s a topic for another day.
On June 20, the Supreme Court’s decision in Utah v. Strieff weakened the Constitution’s protections against unlawful police stops. The ruling said that evidence found could be used in court if the officers found an outstanding arrest warrant during the stop.
Sotomayor’s dissent is not directly related, but there was a line that stuck out to me and following the Sterling story today reminded me I’d wanted to document it here so I’ll remember it later and forever.
Her dissent is powerful, smart, and important. Here’s a small piece:
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. We must not pretend that the countless people who are routinely targeted by police are “isolated.” They are the canaries in the coal mine whose deaths, civil and literal, warn us that no one can breathe in this atmosphere. See L. Guinier & G. Torres, The Miner’s Canary 274–283 (2002). They are the ones who recognize that unlawful police stops corrode all our civil liberties and threaten all our lives. Until their voices matter too, our justice system will continue to be anything but.
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And this little bit again, just to make sure you didn’t miss it:
We must not pretend that the countless people who are routinely targeted by police are “isolated.” They are the canaries in the coal mine whose deaths, civil and literal, warn us that no one can breathe in this atmosphere.
The canaries in the coal mine. And we can’t breathe.
We’re lucky to have her on the Court.
- Find SCOTUSblog’s coverage of the case here.
- Grab a PDF of the official decision here.
- Read The Atlantic’s recap and praise for Sotomayor’s dissent here.