Sotomayor’s dissent in Utah v. Strieff, Part II

September 6, 2016

Last time I read a portion of a dissent by Justice Sotomayor.[1] The Supreme Court of Utah had held that the Utah police had violated the defendant’s constitutional rights. The United States Supreme Court overruled that decision. In the portion of her opinion I read you last time, Justice Sotomayor explained what happens, not always, but what often happens when police stop people. And she explained what the Supreme Court authorizes police to do. Justice Sotomayor explained the ways that stops of people regardless of innocence of any crime, let alone any crime deserving jail time, can injure decent citizens. I didn’t have time to read you the last part of her opinion, so I will read it now:

This case involves a suspicionless stop, one in which the officer initiated this chain of events without justification. As the Justice Department notes,[2] many innocent people are subjected to the humiliations of these unconstitutional searches. The white defendant in this case shows that anyone’s dignity can be violated in this manner.[3] But it is no secret that people of color are disproportionate victims of this type of scrutiny.[4] 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.[5]

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. 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.

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.[6] They are the ones who recognize 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.


I dissent.

Justice Sotomayor was born in New York City to parents from Puerto Rico. After compiling stellar records at Princeton and Yale Law School, she became a prosecutor, eventually going into private practice. She spent six years as a federal judge, another decade as a federal appellate judge, and joined the Supreme Court in 2009. She writes from every angle of the criminal justice system, as an experienced prosecutor, attorney, member of the community, and judge. Her citations are to decisions of the United States Supreme Court. Before she left the Court, Justice O’Connor wrote a stinging dissent to one of the decisions Justice Sotomayor cites.[7] She was coming to understand the enormity of what the Court has authorized. But this is the Court we have. Is this the Court we want?

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, September 6, 2016.

[1] Utah v. Strieff, 136 S. Ct. 2056, 2069-71 (2016) (Sotomayor, J., dissenting).

[2] [Dept. of Justice, Civil Rights Div., Investigation of the Newark Police Department 8, 19, n. 15  [2069]  (2014), online at /default/files/crt/legacy/2014/07/22/newark_findings_7-22-14.pdf.] at 8,

[3] See M. Gottschalk, Caught 119-138 (2015).

[4] See M. Alexander, The New Jim Crow 95-136 (2010).

[5] See, e.g., W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903); J. Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (1963); T. Coates, Between the World and Me (2015).

[6] See L. Guinier & G. Torres, The Miner’s Canary 274-283 (2002).

[7] Atwater v. Lago Vista, 532 U. S. 318, 360 (2001) (O’Connor, J., dissenting).

Sotomayor’s dissent in Utah v. Strieff, Part I

August 31, 2016

I want to read you a portion of a recent dissent by Justice Sonia Sotomayor in which she explains what I think many do not understand about what happens when police stop people on the street.[1] I will skip her citations but you can read them on the website. She wrote the last part of her dissent for herself alone. I think it is well worth your hearing that portion of her dissent in Justice Sotomayor’s own words:

Writing only for myself, and drawing on my professional experiences, I would add that unlawful “stops” have severe consequences much greater than the inconvenience suggested by the name. This Court has given officers an array of instruments to probe and examine you. When we condone officers’ use of these devices without adequate cause, we give them reason to target pedestrians in an arbitrary manner. We also risk treating members of our communities as second-class citizens.

Although many Americans have been stopped for speeding or jaywalking, few may realize how degrading a stop can be when the officer is looking for more. This Court has allowed an officer to stop you for whatever reason he wants—so long as he can point to a pretextual justification after the fact.[2] That justification must provide specific reasons why the officer suspected you were breaking the law,[3] but it may factor in your ethnicity,[4] where you live,[5] what you were wearing,[6] and how you behaved.[7] The officer does not even need to know which law you might have broken so long as he can later point to any possible infraction—even one that is minor, unrelated, or ambiguous.[8]

The indignity of the stop is not limited to an officer telling you that you look like a criminal.[9] The officer may next ask for your “consent” to inspect your bag or purse without telling you that you can decline.[10] Regardless of your answer, he may order you to stand “helpless, perhaps facing a wall with [your] hands raised.”[11] If the officer thinks you might be dangerous, he may then “frisk” you for weapons. This involves more than just a pat down. As onlookers pass by, the officer may “‘feel with sensitive fingers every portion of [your] body. A thorough search [may] be made of [your] arms and armpits, waistline and back, the groin and area about the testicles, and entire surface of the legs down to the feet.’”[12]

The officer’s control over you does not end with the stop. If the officer chooses, he may handcuff you and take you to jail for doing nothing more than speeding, jaywalking, or “driving [your] pickup truck . . . with [your] 3-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter . . . without [your] seatbelt fastened.”[13] At the jail, he can fingerprint you, swab DNA from the inside of your mouth, and force you to “shower with a delousing agent” while you “lift [your] tongue, hold out [your] arms, turn around, and lift [your] genitals.”[14] Even if you are innocent, 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.[15] And, of course, if you fail to pay bail or appear for court, a judge will issue a warrant to render you “arrestable on sight” in the future.[16]

More next time.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 30, 2016.

[1] Utah v. Strieff, 136 S. Ct. 2056, 2069-71 (2016) (Sotomayor, J., dissenting).

[2] Whren v. United States, 517 U. S. 806, 813 (1996).

[3] Terry v. Ohio, 392 U. S. 1, at 21 (1968).

[4] United States v. Brignoni-Ponce, 422 U. S. 873, 886-887 (1975).

[5] Adams v. Williams, 407 U. S. 143, 147 (1972).

[6] United States v. Sokolow, 490 U. S. 1, 4-5 (1989).

[7] Illinois v. Wardlow, 528 U. S. 119, 124-125 (2000).

[8] Devenpeck v. Alford,  [2070]  543 U. S. 146, 154-155 (2004); Heien v. North Carolina, 574 U.S. ___,  (2014).

[9] See C. Epp et al., Pulled Over, at 5 (2014).

[10] See Florida v. Bostick, 501 U. S. 429, 438 (1991).

[11] Terry, 392 U. S., at 17.

[12] Id., at 17, n. 13.

[13] Atwater v. Lago Vista, 532 U. S. 318, 323-324 (2001).

[14] Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders of County of Burlington, 566 U. S. ___,  182 L. Ed. 2d 566, 573 (2012); Maryland v. King, 569 U. S. ___, 186 L. Ed. 2d 1, 30 (2013).

[15] Chin, The New Civil Death, 160 U. Pa. L. Rev. 1789, 1805 (2012); see J. Jacobs, The Eternal Criminal Record 33-51 (2015); Young & Petersilia, Keeping Track, 129 Harv. L. Rev. 1318, 1341-1357 (2016).

[16] A. Goffman, On the Run 196 (2014).

Silencing: Pensions, Kurds and Black Lives Matter

August 16, 2016

We watched a Black Lives Matter march pass in front of our house recently. It reminded me of something that happened in 1972, when NBC aired a documentary called “Pensions: The Broken Promise.” It described many instances in which loopholes in pension plans left people without the pensions they thought they had. The narrator called the “situation” “deplorable.” The documentary won many awards and played a part in developing public support for pension legislation which now goes under the acronym ERISA.

But a group called Accuracy in Media sued pursuant to the now defunct “fairness doctrine,” claiming that the documentary presented a “distorted picture of the private pension system” because almost nothing was presented on the positive side.[1] They wanted to censor NBC for not airing another program about all the good pensions. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled in favor of NBC. The instances detailed in the documentary really happened; they were undisputed. The complaint asked NBC to air a documentary on a different issue – the overall soundness of pensions in America. The Court understood that requiring NBC to discuss the overall issue would dilute its attack on the abuses that had been allowed and had left many workers without pensions. It also might mean that broadcasters in the future would pull their punches, and avoid controversial exposes, no matter how valuable. Those consequences would neuter, rather than contribute, to public discussion of controversial issues of public importance.[2]

Let me turn to another place where the same tactic is being used. Turkey has not allowed Kurdish grievances to be raised. The government says that there are no Kurds, or no loyal Kurds; there are only Turks. So they can talk about grievances so long as they have nothing to do with Kurds. Having silenced Kurds, they then continue to fight a shooting war against the Kurds.

There have been calls for the same method of silencing in an American context today. Various groups attack Black Lives Matter because they say, accurately, that all lives matter. But the meaning of their attack is to neuter the Black Lives Matter campaign. Of course all lives matter, but African-Americans have had distinctive problems. To require Black Lives Matter to discuss the whole issue of abusive treatment of everyone would dilute their campaign, their point, and make it harder to focus on the difference in the way people are treated, the reason why Black parents have to have “the conversation” with their children about what to do if the police stop them, a conversation white parents don’t need to have. Objections to the slogan, that Black Lives Matter, is an effort to keep the veil over a serious injustice in our society.

Of course all lives matter. But most of us understand the phrase “Black Lives Matter” as meaning that Black lives matter too. That’s standard English, both because meaning in our language comes from context and because a positive statement does not imply the nonexistence of everything else. There is no negative implication that other lives don’t matter; there is only emphasis – Black lives, the lives of Black people, are important, they matter, they have been ignored, and that has to stop. Yes, Black lives do matter.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 16, 2016.

[1] In Re Complaint by Accuracy In Media, Inc. Concerning Fairness Doctrine Re NBC, 40 F.C.C.2d 958 (F.C.C. 1973).

[2] NBC v. FCC, 516 F.2d 1101 (1974). Note that the 1974 decision has been vacated on other grounds and is no longer available on common online sources but is available in the hard-copy reporters.

Proposed Amendments to Overcome Citizens United

July 19, 2016

This is the third in a series on Money in Politics. Last time we discussed the difficulty of getting the Court to overrule Citizens United. Because of that, several constitutional amendments have been proposed as joint resolutions and introduced in Congress in order to undo Citizens United and overrule the idea that a corporation is a legal person. After studying them, however, it became clear they have been so sloppily drafted that no one could tell you what they would do.

None that I’ve seen addresses the associations we join. Political, civil liberties, civil rights, and environmental organizations, and professional associations, all take stands on candidates or political issues. The ACLU went to court years ago to protect its ability to take out an ad over the impeachment of President Nixon.[1]

All except the smallest are incorporated and are protected by the right of association. The First Amendment protects speech, press, assembly and petition. In combination, that’s what our associations do to influence public attitudes about major issues. They incorporate to outlast their founders, use the courts, open bank accounts, organize membership and leadership, seek tax-exempt status and protect members from liability for any mistakes the organizations make.

Those associations matter. The lasting impact that people like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King had on the Civil Rights Movement depended on the organizations that did the advance work, and drove home the meaning of what they and other great leaders of the Movement did. That’s true of most successful political movements. Yet the proposed Amendments stop after denying that corporations have constitutional rights and authorizing legislatures to regulate them.

A literalist could read the Amendments as superseding and repealing all previous protections for the organizations we rely on to reform politics, the environment, civil rights and just about everything we care about. Nothing in the proposals protects them.

Sometimes courts hang on to interpretations of older text and neuter newer language, as the Supreme Court has with language in the amendments passed in the aftermath of the Civil War. In the absence of any language about associations, it is impossible to say what the courts would do to the proposals regarding associations.

One proposal denies that it limits the people’s rights, but it is attached to text which limits what the Court defines as part of the people’s First Amendment rights. The meaning of that exception is mysterious, just authorizing courts to figure it out.

Only two amendments mention a free press. They merely say they “shall [not] be construed to alter the freedom of the press.” That’s nice but the exceptions swallow the proposals because much of political campaigns is in or can be done by the press. Whoever controls the distinction controls the result, whether authorities can squelch the press or the press becomes the next form of improper power.

Corporations often set up subsidiaries for otherwise regulated functions, such as associations or media companies, like what Murdock did with Fox. Some media companies are owned by conglomerates. Many associations set up separate organizations for tax purposes. The NAACP set up Thurgood Marshall’s organization around 1940 to separate its legal work from other organizational work. Lawyers fashion ways to live with rules. So what would a press exception do?

Nor should media companies and political associations have a monopoly on political speech. The law should be neutral and should not protect the speech of some while shackling the speech of others.

Whatever you think of the Roberts Court, and I’m no fan, these are serious issues and no proposal addresses them. Instead they provide feel good language covering sloppy and dangerous clauses.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, July 19, 2016.

[1] Amer. Civil Liberties Union, Inc. v. Jennings, 366 F. Supp. 1041 (D.D.C. 1973).


June 28, 2016

This is Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting. We were invited to Albany’s City Hall for an Iftar, the evening feast after the sun-up to sun-down fast. Meetings aren’t polls and people put their best feet forward at public events. But I also know these folks. We greeted friends: a physicist, President of a Mosque on Central Avenue; an engineer who escaped repression in Iran, and ran a radio program to celebrate and protect American freedoms. We greeted a doctor whose daughter was my student and valedictorian at Albany Law, now working for the NY Attorney General. There were scientists, programmers, medical professionals, Sunni and Shi’a, Muslim, Protestant and Catholic clerics and public officials.

One woman described her six year old daughter lying awake at night, terrified, crying and asking where they’ll go if they are kicked out of this country – mother and daughter were born in the U.S., raised in this area, and have no other homeland. Her mother spoke with the girl’s first grade teacher, and the two women shared their tears – this wasn’t schoolyard bullying; the girl had been terrified by what she was hearing over the air.

Speaker after speaker rose to describe how lucky they were to reach America, how grateful they felt for the welcome they received and the chance to rebuild their lives. They celebrated America’s protection for people of all faiths, from all parts of the world, and their own determination to protect that freedom for everyone. Muslim clerics speaking to fellow Muslims, rejoiced in what America offered and encouraged them to do what they could to protect those values for all. Others spoke about the need to remember the blessings of America in times which are quite worrisome for Muslim men, women and children, and to do their best to protect America and its liberties.

Some had made the greatest sacrifice. The Muslim woman I described a moment ago explained that an older brother, also Muslim, had enlisted in the U.S. Army right after 9/11 to defend this country – serving our country which was also his, her brother was killed in action in Afghanistan. To her and to all of us he was one of the heroes of this conflict. Stereotypes must not obscure the contributions of real and good people. It was important to her, and should be important to us, to recognize the sacrifice that her brother and other Muslims have made to protect American freedoms.

Sitting there I realized I was watching the way the best of American values are renewed, revived and passed on as they have been for centuries. Sometimes we Americans show surprisingly little confidence in the strength of our ideals to flower in the hearts of immigrants. That, after all, is why they came.

Mayor Sheehan delivered a warm welcome and later pointed out to some of us that Muslims had been part of Albany since the city’s Dutch beginnings. In fact many of America’s founders made it clear that Muslims, along with Jews, deists, Protestants and Catholics were all included in the Constitution’s protections, and some took steps to make sure that Muslims and immigrants from all continents would feel welcome to come to America.

Every community has bad apples. But the bad apples in non-Muslim communities have been responsible for the vast majority of murder, arson and domestic terrorism in America. Stereotyping hasn’t protected us. Reaching out and welcoming these new Americans is much healthier.

Like many of us, immigrants and their children try to preserve the good parts of their heritage. But they came from war zones. Many risked their lives to escape. They have the strongest reasons to love and celebrate America, because they know what was in store for them or their parents in the lands of their ancestors. They’re trying hard to be helpful and constructive. It’s important that the rest of us recognize that.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, June 28, 2016.

Convicting the Innocent

June 21, 2016

I care about what happened in Orlando because the victims and their families are all members of the human family. And I cringe at the self-styled protestors who use God’s name in vain as an excuse for their own inhumanity toward the grieving families, who deserve to know that we care and share their grief.

Another story is also on my mind. On June 5, the Times Union headline read “Murder verdicts in doubt.” Two men were convicted in 1999 for the murder of a University at Albany student, and have already served 17 years in prison. The two men were grilled aggressively, until they broke down, trying to end the interrogation, and signed a confession. But an Ohio prisoner has now told officials he was the killer and expressed incredulity that Albany Police took a confession from prisoners who hadn’t been able to supply a single fact about the crime because neither had committed it. More than a fifth of exonerated prisoners had signed confessions.

Prisoners break down for many reasons. After hours or days of questioning by people who claim to know you’re guilty, appear ready to keep going until you surrender and sign, and tell you they’ll stop if you sign, that you’ll get off easier, or they won’t recommend the death penalty, it takes a lot of strength to continue to protest innocence. Some don’t have that strength because they are young and inexperienced. Some don’t muster that strength because they have confidence that the system will acquit them since they really didn’t do it. Some plead for lawyers but are broken before any come. It isn’t that hard to break people down and force them to say or sign false statements with enough pressure. It is the sophisticated, educated, trained individual who has some chance of

The two men convicted in this case had an alibi that police could have checked if they were seriously interested in convicting the right people. Police could have had the prisoners write what they remembered instead of dictating what they wanted in the confessions. The police actually tore up what they wrote as not good enough. People break. Breaking doesn’t mean confessing the truth. And being too [quotes] “weak” to withstand that kind of interrogation doesn’t mean people aren’t decent and couldn’t be valuable to their parents, spouses, children and society. We’re not all tough just like we’re not all Einsteins. We all have strengths and weaknesses.

Sending the wrong people to prison does double damage – it lets the guilty go free while the innocent suffer. Unfortunately it’s not rare. Sometimes it’s the result of sloppiness. Eye-witness identification of strangers, for example, is notoriously unreliable. Experiments have shown witnesses doing no better than chance. Suggestive lineups can be much worse than that. Failure to follow leads often results in convicting the innocent. It’s not just overly “aggressive” police work; sometimes police or prosecutors are so anxious to look good for “solving” a crime that they lose sight of who’s guilty. Sometimes they’ve framed people to cover their own misdeeds.  All of those things happen. The individual and collective results are tragic.

I keep hoping that cases like these will at least help people understand that what many call “prisoners’ rights” are actually the rights of all of us designed to make sure that innocent people, any of us, are not convicted and sent to prison for crimes we did not commit.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, June 21, 2016.


When More Law is Too Much – a Case of Airport Excess

May 19, 2016

A proposal before the Albany County legislature makes it a crime to “interfere[] with or fail[] to submit” to the United States Transportation Security Administration inspection protocols.  It would become a crime to turn around and leave the airport for any reason once one enters the screening area.

Proponents imagine people probing airport security until a vulnerability is found by “start[ing] the screening process at an airport” but leaving before completing it. The legislation’s supporters want travelers to have to go through a secondary screening process which includes a physical search of the person and their luggage, a pat down or more. But this poorly drafted legislation makes it a crime to leave once the traveler approaches the conveyor belt, before luggage has been screened.

The proposal substitutes inconsistent local rules for uniform national ones. Under the vague “interference” language, a person who questions why a security officer wants to search the traveler or her luggage may well be arrested for interfering with security protocols.   The proposal aggravates the problem of “flying while Muslim” – or at least flying in Muslim apparel, though I know from experience here and abroad that the vast majority of Muslims are, like the rest of us, decent, caring, peace-loving and law-abiding, although stopped and searched in very disproportionate numbers.

The New York Civil Liberties Union has described this proposal as “a remedy in search of a problem.”[1] There is no apparent problem this legislation would solve. Under long established rules, the TSA and other law enforcement personnel at the airport have all the authority they need to take action whenever they actually suspect a problem rather than whenever someone turns around because they have to run to the bathroom, had a panic attack or forgot something, which becomes criminal under this proposal.

I’d like to quote an eloquent letter sent to me by psychiatrist Aliya Saeed: “physical searches are quite traumatic for many … including survivors of rape (who are unlikely to want the back of a stranger’s hand next to their crotch, and on their breasts, as practiced currently), transgender individuals, those with emotional and mental health issues, pubescent children, etc. Being forced into an arrest … in a crowded public place, because someone is perceived to be walking away from a checkpoint, instead of … being able to simply leave an intolerable situation, presents  an undue risk …. We know that people with mental illness are far more likely to end up at risk of harm in police encounters because they are often unable to communicate effectively or comply readily with police demands. This presents an unnecessary liability for the law enforcement, and an unacceptable risk…, especially [for] those with mental health issues, history of trauma, autism, or those with limited English proficiency.”

This legislation just isn’t needed – there is no gap in authority to take necessary action when officials reasonably suspect wrongdoing. Instead, this will cost us tax dollars without giving us any benefits while threatening travelers with totally unnecessary harm. This legislation should be withdrawn.

– This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 17, 2017.

[1] NYCLU Memorandum Re: Proposed Albany County Local Law E of 2016, establishing a secondary search protocal at Albany County Airport, submitted at a meeting of the Albany County Legislature, Monday, May 9, 2017.

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