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Sonia Sotomayor rips US policing practices in blistering Supreme Court dissent

The justice railed against racial profiling and police brutality in a case that examined whether evidence collected during illegal stops can be presented in court.

by Tess Owen
Jun 20 2016, 8:00pm

Photo by Cliff Owen/AP

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor ripped into US policing practices on Monday, delivering an impassioned dissent that railed against racial profiling and brutality.

Writing the minority opinion in the case Utah v. Strieff, which examined whether evidence collected by police during illegal stops can be presented in court, Sotomayor said "it it is no secret that people of color are disproportionately victims of this type of scrutiny."

"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," she wrote, citing essays on the subject by W. E. B. Du Bois, James Baldwin, and Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Unlawful stops "have severe consequences much greater than the inconvenience suggested by the name," she said. "We also risk treating members of our communities as second-class citizens."

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The court handed down a 5-3 decision in Utah's favor. The ruling dealt with a 2006 case where where a Utah narcotics detective arrested a suspect for methamphetamine possession after searching the man's pockets because he had a "small traffic warrant." Sotomayor argued that condoning these kinds of stops sets a dangerous precedent, and legitimizes questionable police practices in places like New York City and Ferguson, Missouri.

"This case tells everyone, white and black, guilty and innocent, that an officer can verify your legal status at any time," she wrote. "It says that your body is subject to invasion while courts excuse the violation of your rights... 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."

Justices Elena Kagan and Ruth Bader Ginsburg also wrote dissents in the case, but Sotomayor's stood out for her blistering language.

"If you are arrested, and even if you are innocent," she wrote, "you will now join the 65 million Americans with an arrest record and experience the 'civil death' of discrimination by employers, landlords, and whoever else conducts a background check."

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