WASHINGTON, D.C. – “The Supreme Court’s unfortunate decision dealt a significant blow to the Fourth Amendment right of all Americans to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “More disturbingly, the Court’s holding appears to place in jeopardy the rights and liberties of millions of people, a disproportionate number of whom are African American or minority, based on the existence of a trivial warrant that may be tied to a low-level or minor offense. Such an outcome would undermine current nationwide efforts to eliminate the ways in which race infects our criminal justice system.”
The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees that evidence obtained by police in violation of a person’s rights cannot later be used to convict that person of a crime. This rule, called the “exclusionary rule,” is meant to protect the right of privacy, guard against unwarranted government intrusion, and deter police officers and others in the criminal justice system from violating constitutional rights. In the case, the Supreme Court held that evidence found pursuant to an unconstitutional stop, normally inadmissible under this general rule, may now be admissible in a criminal trial if the person is determined to have an outstanding warrant.
Like all cases involving civil rights and civil liberties considered by our nation’s highest court, this case will affect the everyday lives of millions of Americans.
“The impact of today’s decision should not be underestimated,” said Clarke. “State and federal databases reveal that there are at least 7.8 million open warrants across the country, the vast majority of which are for minor and low-level offenses. In New York City alone, there are 1.4 million open warrants tied to low-level offenses such as riding a bike on the sidewalk or being present in a park after dark. Officers should not use such warrants as a pretext to engage in unconstitutional profiling of African Americans and other minorities who are disproportionately subject to warrants because of their inability to pay fines and fees tied to low-level offenses. This decision exposes law enforcement agencies to liability should they interpret the Court’s ruling as an invitation to engage in racial profiling of communities.”
In a dissenting opinion that cites important scholarship by Michelle Alexander and Ta-Nehisi Coates on racial disparities in the criminal justice system, Justice Sotomayor observes 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.” Justice Sotomayor cautions that “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.”