You may think that you should be able to leave your home at any time without fear of being stopped and questioned by law enforcement officials for no reason. Maybe you believe the Fourth Amendment protects you from being stopped and searched without cause. Apparently, the U.S. Supreme Court doesn’t believe so. The high court ruled that if a police officer stops a civilian illegally, or without just cause, and then finds out that the person has an outstanding arrest warrant, then, the high court says, the officer is justified in performing a search and any evidence the officer finds is admissible in court.
The case that brought this ruling about, Utah vs. Strieff, started when Edward Strieff was stopped after leaving a house associated with drug activity. When the officer checked out Strieff’s background, he found an outstanding warrant for a traffic violation. The officer used this violation to justify searching Strieff and then found drugs on Strieff’s person.
With this decision, the Supreme Court appears to be giving law enforcement free rein to persecute people of color without provocation. Apparently, we need only look suspicious–and in cases involving Black people, “suspicious” often means being LGBT, wearing a hoodie or walking down the street with your friends—to become targets of a stop and frisk search.
Where data are available, the evidence that police target Black and Latino communities for these stops is overwhelming.
While New York City’s Black and Latino young men aged 14 to 24 only account for 4.7 percent of the city’s population, they accounted for a whopping 40.6 percent of the 532,911 stops made in 2012. More than 90 percent of those men were completely innocent of any wrongdoing.
Meanwhile, Whites comprise 44 percent of the city yet account for only 11 percent of the stops.
As the only woman of color ever to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, Justice Sonia Sotomayor brings a critical perspective missing from the highest court of the land, and when it comes to this case, she doesn’t pull any punches.
In a remarkable dissent she stated, “The Department of Justice recently reported that in the town of Ferguson, Missouri, with a population of 21,000, 16,000 people [76 percent] had outstanding warrants against them … In the St. Louis metropolitan area officers ‘routinely’ stop people — on the street, at bus stops, or even in court — for no reason other than ‘an officer’s desire to check whether the subject had a municipal arrest warrant pending … 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.”
A 2014 report by the Black Youth Project backs this claim. Only 42 percent of Black youth trust the police and only 66 percent believe the police are there for their protection.
The practice of unwarranted searching has created, as Justice Sotomayor put simply, a nation of “second class citizens,” and this injustice has to stop. The effects of it are clear: Police who target Black people for these searches aren’t making our streets safer; they make them more dangerous for the most marginalized people.
We need to replace this policy with measures that actually ensure public safety. We need to end the criminalization of petty crimes such as traffic violations, jaywalking, public intoxication and low-level drug possession. We need federal legislation to end racial profiling and siphon money away from prisons and back into communities.
As candidates seek our votes, we have an opportunity to demand their commitment to policy reforms that protect our safety and civil rights. It is only when Black communities are free from police harassment that we can begin to truly call them safe.
Janae Bonsu, is the National Policy Chair, Black Youth Project 100. Follow her on Twitter @janaebonsu.