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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.