Within 48 hours, police officers in two distinct jurisdictions – Louisiana and Minnesota – fatally shot two young black men in the context of routine investigative stops. These incidents occurred within weeks of the United States Supreme Court’s opinion in Utah v. Strieff. The Court upheld what all parties characterized as the illegal seizure of a man merely because an officer observed him leaving an apartment under surveillance for alleged drug activity. Writing the opinion of the Court, Justice Clarence Thomas identified two “good-faith mistakes” made by the officer that led to the illegal seizure: (1) the officer lacked any basis to assume Mr. Strieff was present in the apartment for a drug transaction and (2) the officer illegally seized Mr. Strieff to investigate activity in the apartment. While the Court condoned forgiveness of these “good-faith mistakes,” the shootings in Louisiana and Minnesota exemplify the critical importance of constitutional protections and what can occur when these rights are violated. Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s dissent in Strieff best discusses why constitutional violations by police should not be excused by courts as mere “good faith mistakes:”
[f]or 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. . . . 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. . . . 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. 579 U.S. _____ (2016) (external citations omitted)
Investigations of both shootings will hopefully produce accurate and substantive details of what occurred before these shootings and lead to necessary reform.