Justice Sotomayor: The Libertarian?

In December 2014, The Supreme Court heard arguments in the case Heien v. North Carolina. You can click on the link to read the entirety of the case if interested, but I’ll give you fairly brief synopsis here.

In 2010, a man named Maynor Vasquez was pulled over by police for having one of his two brake lights inoperative. Police observed his friend, Nicholas Heien sleeping in the back seat of the car. Thinking this behavior seemed a little odd, police fairly asked if they could search the car, and were given permission to do so.

Official Portrait of United States Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor Click for Biography
Official Portrait of United States Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor
Click for Biography

Upon the search, they discovered 54 grams of cocaine in the vehicle, then arrested and convicted Heien of two counts of trafficking, presumably due to the amount larger than one person’s normal usage.

Heien’s lawyer challenged the traffic stop as North Carolina law only requires you have a working brake light, not both of them. As such, council argued the police stopping Vasquez and Heien constituted an illegal stop, and the search was therefore the proverbial “fruit of the poisonous tree,” and should have been thrown out.

Eventually, certiorari was granted, and SCOTUS heard the case in 2014. The court ruled against Heien in an 8:1 decision—Sotomayor being the only dissenter.SCOTUS8-1

During oral arguments, Sotomayor asked the petitioner:

(You can click below for the entire oral arguments transcript)

“So how many citizens have been stopped for one brake light who are asked to have their car searched? And is that something that we as a society should be encouraging?”

It’s fairly common knowledge, that SCOTUS at that time was comprised of what most considered five right-leaning justices, and four left-leaning. Sotomayor being one of the left—as she was appointed by Obama.

The issue at hand was whether Heien’s Constitutional rights were violated by a search under the Fourth Amendment which reads:

“[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

While it is often believed that the left-leaning justices don’t often seem too concerned with the Constitution, if you listen to oral arguments long enough, you start to see both sides indeed heavily use the constitution for the basis of their arguments.

United States Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia 1960-2016
Justice Antonin Scalia 1960-2016

What’s often the case however, is that some are absolutists, and use the constitution strictly as it’s written.

The late Justice Antonin Scalia was among the most supportive of this notion. In an interview he stated that, “The only good Constitution is a dead Constitution. The problem with a living Constitution in a word is that somebody has to decide how it grows and when it is that new rights are – you know — come forth. And that’s an enormous responsibility in a democracy to place upon nine lawyers, or even 30 lawyers.”

However, other justices try to interpret what was intended when the Constitution or its amendments were written, instead of interpreting it solely by its verbiage—referring to the Constitution as a living document. Most notably, former Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who wrote this piece explaining his ideals.

United States Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist 1924-2005
United States Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist 1924-2005

This “Living Document” idea also means that they often try to modernize the Constitution in such a way as to essentially say, “If the framers knew what we know today, this is what they’d have written or done.”

Scalia (and I agree wholeheartedly) would argue that it is for congress to rewrite the Constitution through the amendment process, and that the “Living Constitution” concept is nothing less than legislating from the bench—blurring the lines of the separation of powers intended by creating the Judicial, Legislative, and Executive branches.

But nonetheless, Justice Sotomayor’s lone dissent, was clearly the only decision made with the Constitution in mind as written, almost stunningly not echoed by the late Justice Scalia and other conservative justices.

The United States Constitution
The United States Constitution

In today’s highly politicized society, we often wish to assume that partisan’s, including justices, are always on the side of their party, but every once in a while, you will find an ally in the most unlikely places, and on this particular issue, the only ally to liberty was Justice Sotomayor, recognizing that you cannot allow police to search someone’s car under a false pretense, and then allow prosecution to proceed accordingly.

I’m often pretty outspoken in my disdain for any politician who is consistently on the wrong side of liberty, but I’ve always said I worship ideals, not people. I just give people credit where it’s due, and attack when I believe it’s warranted. On this day, Justice Sotomayor was right, and she should be commended for it.

 

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How To Improve Relations Between Police and Citizens

Unless you avoid the news at all costs, you’re fully aware of the shootings by police, killing two black citizens, Alton Sterling and Philano Castile, both under highly questionable circumstances.

Alton Sterling (Left), and Philando Castile (right)
Alton Sterling (Left), and Philando Castile (right)

Then Army reservist/Afghan war veteran Micah Xavier Johnson, so enraged by such shootings, murdered several police officers in Dallas in retaliation.

There can be no doubt, that tensions between the governed and the government are at levels that are bordering the animosity that triggered us to war for independence against Great Britain 240 years ago. But how did we get here, and how do we get out?

Facts versus Headlines

It’s fair to say that the media push narratives that get ratings. But while according to the FBI in 2014, most black and white people are killed by people of their own race—89% for the black community, and 82% for the white, they often push a narrative that a young black man is more likely to be killed by a white cop.

There were a total of 444 police shootings deemed justifiable homicide, by police in 2014. Pointing out those deemed justifiable homicide is important to the story, because the concern is that police aren’t prosecuted for such shootings. So for police not to be prosecuted, it means the shooting was deemed justifiable.

The FBI didn’t break them down by race, but even if they were all white cops shooting black victims, which they certainly aren’t, that’s still four times less than the 2,205 black-on-black murders in the same year, or the 2,488 white-on-white murders.fbi-logo-404553[1]

Let’s be clear about that statistic, though. It has little to do with living in violent communities, a narrative that is often asserted. The first clue is that white-on-white murders are very similar.

It actually has to do with people being four times as likely to be killed by someone they simply knew.

See this table from the FBI, also in 2014, which shows that 43% of the time people were killed by an acquaintance or family, compared to 11.5% by strangers. The rest are unknown, but since the dataset is somewhat large, we should reasonably assume that nearly 4:1 ratio would be true for the unknowns as well.

The Attitude Adjustment

We need to change the way we interact with each other.

The police were hired to protect our rights. If one pulls you over or otherwise interacts with you, remember that this person is potentially willing to die for you—treat them accordingly. A little compassion for police who do such a dangerous job would go a long way to improve the exchange you have with that officer.

Credit: inhauscreative Vetta Getty Images
Credit: inhauscreative Vetta Getty Images

But as always, it takes two to tango.

Police are trained to fear the worst and prepare for it in each interaction they have with the public. The most innocent traffic stop could be their last.

But preparing for the worst doesn’t excuse assuming the worst, nor treating them as if they’re the worst. If police want people to respect them, they must first show citizens the same respect they expect from them. If an officer didn’t specifically witness a citizen harming someone, they are innocent until proven guilty—it’s an officer’s duty to act accordingly.

Blame Legislators Versus The Police Where Appropriate

Whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat (libertarians already generally know this), when you try to socially engineer society by passing victimless crimes, you cause police to have to enforce those crimes—requiring more police.

This puts both police and citizens in harm’s way; increasing the odds of violent interactions between the two parties.SundayAlcohol[1]

Drugs, prostitution, blue laws, and other such victimless legislation which protect no one—yet risk many, are a huge part of the problem.

If you support passing a law, then you must be comfortable with the notion of putting a gun to the offender’s head and killing them yourself if they violate it. If you’re uncomfortable with this thought, then it’s pure hypocrisy to put police in the situation where they may have to do so in your name.

For instance, if your neighbor were smoking marijuana, would you walk next door, put a gun to their head and tell them to stop or you’ll kill them? Of course not. But if that same neighbor were raping a child, I suspect you’d feel quite differently. This is bad legislation versus good in a nutshell.

If we want to reduce senseless violence, we must first elect someone looking to undo all the senseless laws we’ve passed which trigger senseless violence. Then be sure they don’t pass new ones going forward.

Respect the Constitutiongun-and-the-constitution[1]

I’m in a state where concealed carry requires a permit. So this means I open carry when walking my dog at night, because I haven’t taken the course and applied for that license. I carry in case I get accosted by a miscreant. In so doing, I often worry I might get accosted by the police.

The current scenario is that if a busy-body citizen calls police to report me walking down the street carrying a gun, the police must investigate. They do this because we’ve allowed a litigious culture where police can be held liable for not investigating.

What should happen however is that the police should respond to the caller with, “Carrying a gun is every American’s right. Does he/she appear to be committing a crime? If not, there’s nothing for us to investigate.”

This may seem wrong at first, but the police would do this if you reported someone just driving a car down the street. Driving a car and carrying a gun are both perfectly legal actions that have an intrinsic danger if done so irresponsibly or maliciously. So while at first it may seem like a horrid analogy, they are almost exactly the same.

The reason it feels wrong is simple conditioning by anti-gun people who deem gun carriers as a threat, despite the fact everyone is a threat in some way, and gun carriers aren’t any more likely to harm someone. Most are responsible citizens exercising their 2nd amendment rights just as all of us exercise our 1st.

We then need to pass serious tort reform to preventing civil action against police who don’t investigate someone carrying a gun, on the off chance that person actually harms someone.

Better Community Outreach via Police Training

This proposal is a bit novel and controversial, and I admit it may have unintended consequences. But I like blue skies thinking, so I’ll propose it anyway just to get some creative juices flowing.

Much like we have food stamps to help the needy eat, I think police could use confiscated weapons that are normally destroyed, and start a program with impoverished citizens in bad neighborhoods to protect themselves by donating these weapons and giving classes on how to use them properly.

Of course those citizens would be screened properly for criminal backgrounds like they would for a gun purchase. And yes, it is possible one of those guns may be used in a crime later. But it’s also highly possible that those guns may save many lives of people too poor to buy one themselves, yet absolutely may need one as a result of living in a high crime area.oc_zps62e1c21e[1]

If every good citizen were armed, and prepared to defend themselves against a would-be criminal, we’d have a lot less would-be criminals.

Criminal prey on the weak, but it’s hard to call anyone packing heat, weak. Guns are the greatest equalizer mankind has every invented, turning a feeble grandmother into a Chuck Norris level threat.

Police Need To Eschew The Brotherhood Mentality

Being a Corvette owner, we tend to recognize each other—so much so, that nearly all of us wave at another Corvette owner driving past. Motorcyclists do this too. If you were from Boston, visiting California, and overhear the person next to you say he just “Pahked the Cah,” you’ll almost certainly strike up a conversation with him.

This is because people are hard-wired to bond with those they share commonalities with—it strengthens societal bonds. The easiest way to do this, is to bond over a unique common interest or trait. I say “unique,” because if you were both in Boston, you’d pay the same person no attention whatsoever.

Police know that their work is dangerous, so they form strong bonds among one another so they can be confident they’d have the other’s back, even if they don’t personally know each other—it’s a very natural phenomenon.

But they should be taught that this is a natural emotion, and that they should avoid following it blindly. Much like the placebo effect, while it’s natural, it can do far more harm than good if all skepticism is eschewed.

Violent Crime Rate comparison between general population UCR data and law enforcement population NPMSRP data. Click image for the full article
Violent Crime Rate comparison between general population UCR data and law enforcement population NPMSRP data.
Click image for the full article

This data shows that police are just as likely to commit criminal acts as the general public.

At first, you might think this seems odd, but the police are regular people, not superheroes.

We often hear stories of good Samaritans doing wonderful things. So being a good person isn’t unique to police, nor is being a criminal unique to the general public either.

The reason I say they need to eschew the brotherhood mentality is that police often defend other police who have clearly done unconscionable things.

While at first, a police officer might think defending their “brothers” is the honorable thing to do, but it’s absolutely not in their best interests.

When an officer commits a crime, they violate their sworn oath to uphold the law of the land, dishonoring their noble profession. But it also creates animosity with the public who feel as though police can operate above the law without repercussion.

This hatred and distrust often leads enraged citizens to act violently towards the police, because they feel it the only way justice will be served—putting good cops needlessly at risk, as evidenced by the aforementioned Micah Johnson.

Instead, if an officer is arrested or put on probation for a potential felonious act, police should distance themselves from that person entirely, and make it clear that if the person is found guilty, that person is no “brother” of mine.

They should also be quick to report any criminal acts among their ranks, and clean their own house unmercifully. They will never get the trust and respect of disenfranchised citizens otherwise.

And let’s be honest, if you are a police officer, are you really OK with one of your own committing a murder or unprovoked assault?

Drew Peterson should serve as a shining example of the harm that can come from this blind loyalty. His fellow officers failed to properly address allegations of abuse against Drew when his then wife Stacy Peterson reported him a multitude of times for serious domestic abuse.

Stacy Peterson
Stacy Peterson

It is almost certain that had his fellow officers taken Stacy’s complaints seriously, and treated Drew like any other violently abusive husband—investigating Drew in earnest, Stacy could very well be alive today, with Drew safely in jail where he belonged.

By all means, police should have each other’s backs, but never at the expense of what is right. A criminal is a criminal, whether they wear a badge or a wife-beater, they should be treated with the same prosecutorial mindset.

I could write an entirely separate post on the tactics police unions use to protect police in ways that harm the general public, and destroy the public’s trust in them. They should merely assign the accused a lawyer, and refrain from professing the person’s innocence or any other public statements until that officer is cleared of any wrongdoing.

But once convicted, their sentences should be as harsh as what would be applied to the general public (in my opinion harsher, since they swore to uphold those laws). The slap on the wrist sentence for an offense that would land us regular citizens in jail is surely one of the largest factors in eroding the relationship between the governed and the government.

A Science Hack’s Guide To Black Holes

In the 1930s, physicist John Wheeler coined the term “Black Holes” to describe a particularly massive object in the cosmos. Yet curiously, I think Wheeler may also have been quite the practical joker, because a black hole is almost certainly comically misnamed, or at least misleading in its name.

First off, I say “almost certainly” because there’s a big problem with black holes. Science is essentially the way you answer questions about things you observe in the natural world, and this is where the first problem lies.

Artist's Rendering of what a Black Hole Might "Look" like. Click for full size image
Artist’s Rendering of what a Black Hole Might “Look” like.
Click for full size image

We can’t directly observe a black hole—at least, not currently.

To understand this, we must first understand how we use sight to observe anything.

When you observe something with your eyes, you’re seeing light (formally known as electromagnetic radiation) from an energy source such as the sun, or simple light bulbs and Light-Emitting Diodes (LEDs) either directly hitting your eyes, or bouncing off an object. For instance, if you look at a green plant, it’s absorbing all light except green light, which it reflects, and that’s why it appears green to you.

Most people know there’s a speed of light, this speed is 299,792,458 meters per second, or approximately 671 million miles per hour. This is the speed at which all things move unless they have mass slowing them down.

Electricity, gravity waves, light, radio waves, and any other massless objects all move constantly at this breakneck pace. But what is often forgotten in that fact, is that this is only true in a vacuum like the emptiness of space—well, sort of.

When light enters Earth’s atmosphere, passes through water, or interacts with any other matter, it imparts a small force on whatever it strikes. This is the principle behind using solar sails like this one from LightSail™ as a means of propulsion.

Artist’s concept of LightSail backdropped by the Milky Way galaxy. Credit: The Planetary Society
Artist’s concept of LightSail backdropped by the Milky Way galaxy. Credit: The Planetary Society

If this is true, when you account for Isaac’s 3rd law of motion which states that for every action (force) in nature there is an equal and opposite reaction, this means that whatever force light photons impart, that bit of mass will impart an equal force back on the light photon.

At first you might think that because light photons have no mass, they can’t impart such a force, but they do have energy and momentum, as explained here.

This reactionary force is often said to slow down the light. But it’s not actually slowing down because massless things travel at the speed of light always, it’s just taking a longer jagged route on its way from Point A to Point B as it bounces off of all the matter in its way, instead of taking the shorter straight line it would in a vacuum.

You can observe the results of this phenomenon by sticking a straight object in water and wondering why the %$#& it appears to be bending.

Click image for a more detailed explanation of this refraction
Click image for a more detailed explanation of this refraction

Black holes are masses significantly larger than our sun, which as you know, is pretty damn big.

It was often believed that a mass about 25 times larger than our sun would have the gravity it takes to form a black hole, however this star was observed and believed to be nearly 40 times as large, yet didn’t form one. So we’ll leave that in the “unknown” column for the moment.

We often think of gravity as a force that pulls a mass towards a larger mass, but Einstein understood gravity as a  wave bending space-time which simply forces things together. Because a black hole has so much mass, it bends space-time in such a profound way that light cannot make it back out, instead it just keeps bouncing around inside it, never making its way to our telescopes or eyes.

blackhole_gravity[1]

So pretty much all we know (or think we know) is based on calculations, understanding of physics we do know, and observations of effects in space that we think are most likely attributed to black holes.

As a result, most of what everyone reports about black holes, especially this post, are largely conjecture. As always, I often simplify things a bit as well. Sometimes because try to appeal to a general audience, other times because it’s simply all the better I understand the subject.

Nonetheless, any physicists or otherwise knowledgeable people on the matter, your comments, clarifications, or corrections are most certainly welcome below, this post is called A Hack’s Guide after all, so expert opinion is welcome.

At the beginning of this, I mentioned that I feel it’s comically misnamed. The whole point of explaining the light issue is to explain that a black hole is almost certainly not black in a traditional sense. There’s a lot of energy there, as this article from John’s Hopkins points out, “light is nature’s way of transferring energy through space.” Look no further than our sun for evidence of this.

So it’s most certainly emitting some light, even if it’s not in our visible spectrum, which therefore means it wouldn’t technically be black. It’s only that the light can’t escape its gravity, so you cannot observe its color and thus see no light (black) in the place in space it exists.

Some might argue that all things that are pure black absorb all light. For better or worse, I draw a distinction because those things are merely absorbing light hitting them, not emitting light on their own which simply can’t escape.

Now that we’ve covered why I believe it shouldn’t necessarily be called black, I’m going to address why it shouldn’t be called a hole, either.

Asteroids, such as Itokawa, pictured here, are thought to be more like piles of rubble loosely clung together, than solid chunks of rock. Credit: ISAS/JAXA (Click for more info)
Asteroids, such as Itokawa, pictured here, are thought to be more like piles of rubble loosely clung together, than solid chunks of rock.
Credit: ISAS/JAXA
(Click for more info)

If you were to put groups of celestial matter into categories by size that are big enough to be seen from the ground, you would have smaller objects like asteroids (meteors if they’re fixin’ to smash into Earth), which can be any random sort of shape for the most part.

Once they get about 200 kilometers in diameter however, the gravity of their own mass will start to pull them into a spherical shape, because it wants to start equalizing, or making sure that everything is equidistant from the center. That 200 kilometer number is rather interestingly called the Potato Radius, because celestial bodies below that size, often look like a potato.

Such large celestial bodies aren’t just asteroids, they can be dwarf planets like Pluto or full-fledged planets like Earth if they revolve around a star like our sun in a solar system. They can also be moons that revolve around planets.

This synthetic perspective view of Pluto, based on the latest high-resolution images to be downlinked from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, shows what you would see if you were approximately 1,100 miles (1,800 kilometers) above Pluto’s equatorial area, looking northeast over the dark, cratered, informally named Cthulhu Regio toward the bright, smooth, expanse of icy plains informally called Sputnik Planum. The entire expanse of terrain seen in this image is 1,100 miles (1,800 kilometers) across. The images were taken as New Horizons flew past Pluto on July 14, 2015, from a distance of 50,000 miles (80,000 kilometers). Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
This synthetic perspective view of Pluto, based on the latest high-resolution images to be downlinked from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, shows what you would see if you were approximately 1,100 miles (1,800 kilometers) above Pluto’s equatorial area, looking northeast over the dark, cratered, informally named Cthulhu Regio toward the bright, smooth, expanse of icy plains informally called Sputnik Planum. The entire expanse of terrain seen in this image is 1,100 miles (1,800 kilometers) across. The images were taken as New Horizons flew past Pluto on July 14, 2015, from a distance of 50,000 miles (80,000 kilometers).
Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

As they grow and gain mass, the pressure created from their massive gravity can start to heat up their core, where the gravity’s pressure is greatest (like Earth’s core), but if they get enough mass, it can eventually trigger nuclear fusion at their core, which can then make them become a star.

Our own solar system would tell you that this size would be somewhere between our own sun, which is a constant fusion reaction, and Jupiter, our solar system’s largest planet. But it’s a little fuzzy as to how much more massive Jupiter would have to become for this to happen.

From there, if a star continues to gain significantly more mass, it can go supernova and essentially blow up, form a neutron star, or if it’s mass is even greater, form a black hole.

Gumby
Gumby

So a black hole is not a hole (a nothingness) at all, it’s a huge mass. Despite Hollywood conjecture, things wouldn’t travel through it like they would an actual hole, they’d be slammed into it and become part of it with a monumental splat. Imagine it would be something like falling to Earth from an airplane without a parachute, but you’d be travelling way WAY faster and be stretched out like a cosmic Gumby as the part of you closest to it gets pulled harder than the part of you furthest from it—a process called spaghettification, for reasons I hope I don’t have to explain. A prospect that sounds generally unpleasant.

A black hole is also almost assuredly not flat like you’d think of when you think of a hole. Instead, it would likely be a perfect sphere since it is far greater than the aforementioned Potato Radius and thus its gravity would pull on everything equally from all sides towards the center keeping it round.

So what do I think it should be called instead? Something like Supermass or Megamass would have been much more appropriate to me. But nearly a hundred years after the phrase was coined, just like the largely misnamed football (Specifically American football, which is rarely kicked; not to mention the other football already existed) I doubt this movement would gain much traction at this point. So black holes it is…dammit.