Frontera Fund News

It’s Time to Have the Talk, Again. Supreme Court Expands Police Powers

Written by Carmen Cornejo

We mothers of Latino, African-American, Middle Eastern, or other minority children (especially sons) have challenging conversations with our teenagers related to encounters with law enforcement. We are not stupid and know our children are scrutinized by police at disproportionate rates.

Justice Sotomayor reminded us we need to have “the talk” again when she wrote in opposition to a Supreme Court decision reached on Monday that ruled police can use evidence found during an illegal stop if the officers conduct the search after discovering the defendant has an unrelated outstanding warrant.

The 5-3 decision found that searches do not violate the 4th amendment when they are performed under an existing warrant unrelated to the stop.

The case is known as Utah v. Strieff.

Justice Sotomayor expressed her dissent, fearing the ramifications this decision may have for brown and black communities:

“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.”

Sotomayor said the decision in the Utah case gives police too much power.

Furthermore, she stated: “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.”

“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.”

As the case in Ferguson, Missouri revealed, law enforcement is issuing massive numbers of outstanding warrants to individuals for unpaid traffic tickets and offenses that ordinarily would not carry any jail time, thereby criminalizing a good portion of the population. A 2015 study revealed that police had issued 16,000 outstanding warrants against citizens in Ferguson, a town of 21,000.

This is especially bad news for immigrant communities since police officers can embark on “fishing expeditions” to seek wrongdoing. Police stops can now happen even when there is no probable cause and can bring about a search based on an unrelated outstanding warrant for an offense as small as an unpaid ticket.

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