In December of 1977, in only his second year on the United States Supreme Court, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote a dissenting opinion in the case of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania vs. Harry Mimms. Now, 95-years-old and five years retired from the bench, Justice Stevens must watch his predictions unfold with tragic consequences. His inability to convince two more of his colleagues to support his dissent four decades ago, literally killed Sandra Bland this month at a jail in Texas.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the case of Ms. Bland, this is her.
Or rather, this was her, until she was pulled over by an officer in Texas two weeks ago, for failure to signal a lane change, forced to exit her vehicle under threat of violence, arrested, held on $5,000 bond, before eventually asphyxiating to death in her prison cell.
How does that happen? How does a routine stop where no crimes were committed turn into an innocent young woman dying alone in a cell?
To answer that question, we turn to Justice John Paul Stevens. Back in 1977, when the Supreme Court was faced with question of whether a police officer can order a driver out of a vehicle during a routine traffic stop without violating the law against unreasonable search and seizures, Justice Stevens was one of only three judges who seemed to think this was a bad idea.
Justice Stevens was absolutely right when he told his colleagues:
“The Court cannot seriously believe that the risk to the arresting officer is so universal that his safety is always a reasonable justification for ordering a driver out of his car. The commuter on his way home to dinner, the parent driving children to school, the tourist circling the Capitol, or the family on a Sunday afternoon outing hardly pose the same threat as a driver curbed after a high-speed chase through a high-crime area late at night.”
He was eloquent in warning us that:
“A woman stopped at night may fear for her own safety”
And he was without a doubt aware even in the 1970’s that a:
“Driver who presents no possible threat of violence may regard the police command as nothing more than an arrogant and unnecessary display of authority.”
Justice Stevens knew that there had to be some limit to what an officer can order an innocent citizen to do. Some restraint or, “guarantee against arbitrary harassment.” But on that day in 1977 he could not convince 2 more white men that he was right. Because he could not do that, there is no such guarantee. Arbitrary harassment by police officers is the rule of the day, and when people reach the limit of their indignity, some collapse under the weight. Some take their own life.
And in this case, as in the thousands more, documented and undocumented stops police perform every day, this indignity is rationed out not based on sound principals of policing – instead it is delivered to those who can least afford to defend themselves. Justice Stevens knew the poisoned fruit these seeds would grow and now that fruit has grown ripe throughout our nation.
His final argument echos hallow in the halls of American justice.
“To eliminate any requirement that an officer be able to explain the reasons for his actions signals an abandonment of effective judicial supervision of this kind of seizure and leaves police discretion utterly without limits. Some citizens will be subjected to this minor indignity while others—perhaps those with more expensive cars, or different bumper stickers, or different-colored skin—may escape it entirely.”
And so ends another night where I am ashamed of my fellow Americans for their failure to heed the warnings of wise and the kind-hearted. Another night where I am ashamed of our inhumanity to man. Perhaps as he sits on his porch in Florida, drinking another bitter glass of lemonade under the shade of his porch, Justice Stevens shares in my shame on behalf of us all.