BY JOSEPH SANDFORD
Several powerful themes emerged from the Republican National Convention last week: American society is synonymous with freedom, our Constitution is sacred and the only instrument capable of securing our freedom, and law and order must be restored in a country that has succumbed to widespread violence. The gusto in support of such ideas was on full display during the affair’s dramatic finale, but do they accurately portray how the broken system of criminal justice plagues our country?
Before the Republican Party turned to demagoguery to inspire their reactionary base, Georgetown University Law professor David Cole published No Equal Justice, a depressing study of our country’s criminal justice system. In the book, he shows that the Constitution fails to protect all Americans’ rights equally, and that the Supreme Court has encouraged Fourth Amendment abuses by law enforcement in black communities.
Some might see the Supreme Court as a beacon of hope for those whom the cards are stacked forcibly against. Cole demonstrates that the Court has recently been the opposite: “The Court has consciously created a regime designed to coerce the less well educated and the less self-assured among us to surrender their constitutional rights.” Police coercion manifests disproportionately within black communities, leading to increased arrests, distrust, and the disintegration of effective policing.
This pattern revealed itself again in the Court’s June 20th Utah v. Strieff decision. The Court upheld Utah’s ability to prosecute using evidence obtained after the illegal detention of a law-abiding citizen. On the basis of a technicality, the Court moved to protect a police officer’s right to “stop you on the street, demand your identification, and check it for outstanding traffic warrants – even if you are doing nothing wrong,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor asserts in her dissent.
The technicality was the discovery of an arrest warrant for the suspect in question and the absence of the appearance of a dragnet effort to stop and question citizens throughout the streets of Salt Lake City. However, Sotomayor argues that these practices are not isolated or cases of benign negligence, citing evidence that police units throughout the country have conducted tens of thousands of suspicionless stops in the search of people with arrest warrants who can then be exploited.
The closing paragraphs of Sotomayor’s dissent convey the danger of these types of police practices: “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 carceral state, just waiting to be cataloged.”
Decisions such as Strieff act as a destructive feedback loop within black communities. Police concentrate their abuses in black neighborhoods, which leads to increased arrests and a collective identification of blacks as criminals deserving of unequal treatment. “The criminal stigmatization of blacks perpetuates and justifies their subordination as a group,” Cole writes, “and the status of blacks as a segregated, subordinated groups makes it easier to insist on ever-more-stringent stigmatizing measures in the criminal law.”
The appeal of the Republican’s law and order propaganda is a trap designed to ensnare members of the white community fearful of recent violence. It disguises the effects of elevating law and order above equality. This trap will confirm the police as above the law, and further encourage corrupt law enforcement practices within minority and impoverished communities. We must ask: Is the Constitution meaningful if it doesn’t equally apply to all? Rhetoric and action conflict on this issue, and come November we’ll see where our country truly stands.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Joseph is a student of all that can be found on earth and beyond. He and Natalie met during their freshman year of college, and they’ve been debating everything from the pitfalls of democracy to the wonders of astronomy ever since. Joseph is a historian by training, who’s searching for meaning through the art of the essay. An avid skier and golfer, he currently lives in Boulder, Colorado (420 anyone?).