Supreme Court decides police need more power

You’d hope these guys would at least watch the news, but alas, only Sonia Sotomayor gets it.   In the latest decision, the Court has decided a search is reasonable so long as the police officer think he is acting reasonably.  Even if he is actually not.  In this case, the police officer was simply wrong on the law– thought only one working break light working was illegal, it’s not.    The potential for abuse for this is obvious and breathtaking.  “Well, yes, judge, I thought it was against the law to xxx to I conducted a search.”  Here’s Dahlia Lithwick:

Heien v. North Carolina was the first big criminal case to come down this term, and it involved a question of whether a cop’s mistaken understanding of a state traffic law—a misunderstanding that led to a traffic stop for wholly innocent behavior—should be used to throw out a drug conviction that resulted from that stop. On Monday, eight justices ruled that although the police officer stopped a car for having only one working brake light, and having only one working brake light is actually legal in North Carolina, the stop was “reasonable” under the Fourth Amendment. Thus, the baggie of cocaine the officer found in his resulting search of the car was admissible in court…

Heien has argued that since ignorance of the law is never an excuse for citizens accused of crimes, it defies logic to create that double standard for police. This week, that argument lost by a wide margin. As Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority: “To be reasonable is not to be perfect, and so the Fourth Amendment allows for some mistakes on the part of government officials, giving them fair leeway for enforcing the law in the community’s protection.”

Citizens make mistakes and there are consequences– jail, etc.  Apparently, if the police make what is explained as an honest mistake, there simply are no consequences.

Why does any of this matter? Because Vasquez wasn’t stopped by the cops for having a broken tail light. He was trailed by an officer because he was driving while looking “stiff and nervous” and for “gripping the steering wheel at a 10 and 2 position, looking straight ahead.” In other words, he was a Hispanic man driving a beat-up car in North Carolina, and the officer followed him for doing what the rest of us do every single day: driving while holding on to a steering wheel and looking forward.

Yes!  Do we seriously need to give the police more discretion in stopping poor and minorities (we’ve already seen how effective that is for stealing cash from innocent people).

Justice Sonia Sotomayor tried in vain to bring up this underlying concern at oral argument when the case was argued in October. Questioning Robert C. Montgomery, a senior deputy attorney general representing North Carolina, Sotomayor interrupted him to point out that the stop for the brake light was purely pretextual. The officer used it as an excuse to pull over and confront the driver. As the justice put it at the time: “There is a problem, however, I’m sorry. The police officer wasn’t stopping him because of the brake light. The police officer was involved in criminal interdictions and admitted that this was a pretext, a lawful pretext, he thought.” Sotomayor went on: “So how many citizens have been stopped for one brake light who are asked to have their car searched? And is that something that we as a society should be encouraging?” …

You would think that we had not just lived through a summer in which we were painfully reminded of the realities of militarized police, civil asset forfeiture, racial profiling, relentless police harassment of citizens, and frivolous stops for trivial infractions. These infractions can lead to mounting debts which in many minority communities turn the criminal justice system into something like a series of debtors’ prisons. The discussion in Heien never reflects the fact that a long, sordid history of pretextual and harassing traffic stops have fostered fear and anxiety in minority communities. As President Obama put it, there is a “simmering distrust that exists between too many police departments and too many communities of color.” But from the perspective of the high court, it’s as if the summer of 2014 was happening in an alternate universe.

As ThinkProgress reported in August, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that 13 percent of black people and 10 percent of white people in their survey reported that their most recent contact with police had been during traffic stops. Seven percent of black drivers were ticketed, compared with 5 percent for white drivers. Abrief filed in this case by the Rutherford Institute argued that allowing police yet more latitude in their interpretation of the law will disparately harm minorities, because their evidence shows that blacks and Hispanics are more likely than whites to be searched. But from the court, silence.

How can I argue for drug dealers going free?  I’ll argue for it every day.  For one, it’s a cost I’ll readily bear to prevent police abusing minority populations.  Even more importantly, I will absolutely take drug dealers going free over a police force that is allowed to search citizens with impunity.  That’s called freedom.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

One Response to Supreme Court decides police need more power

  1. Alex says:

    “I will absolutely take drug dealers going free over a police force that is allowed to search citizens with impunity. That’s called freedom.”

    I’m going to blatantly and shamelessly steal this great quote every chance I get.

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