Chapter 2: "The Lockdown" Summary

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Last Reviewed on March 10, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1208

Alexander introduces the chapter with a rumination on the discrepancy between how the American criminal justice system is portrayed on television and the grim realities of how this system victimizes and subjugates people of color.

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Alexander explicitly states that the rest of the chapter will focus on the particularly devastating effects of the War on Drugs, which she identifies as the primary contributor to mass incarceration. Citing the nearly half-million inmates who are imprisoned for drug-related offenses, Alexander explains how the government’s strategy of addressing drug crime is the easiest method by which to enforce a racial caste system.

Before tracing the development of the War on Drugs, Alexander addresses common misconceptions about its goals and results: Although convictions for drug-related crimes have dramatically increased, marijuana convictions account for the greatest percentage, and many convictions are for non-violent offenses like possession. With the dramatic increase in drug convictions after 1980 came a prison industry boom, and private corporations have since made millions creating facilities to accommodate the ever-growing inmate population.

Alexander explains how, over time, the protections of the Fourth Amendment—which protects citizens against unreasonable searches and seizures—have been eroded in relation to drug crimes. Beginning in the early 1990s, the Supreme Court began upholding exceptions to the Fourth Amendment when law enforcement seized evidence without a warrant, provided that evidence led to a drug conviction. A variety of invasive drug prevention and detection measures have received judicial approval in recent years, including random drug testing for students or employees and random searches of personal property while on the premises of government facilities. Alexander argues that these erosions of civil liberties and privacy give law enforcement free rein to question and detain suspected drug users anytime, anywhere.

Suspicion of drug use is what allows law enforcement to target people of color. Exceptions like the “stop-and-frisk” rule allow police to search anyone they might suspect of engaging in criminal activity without obtaining a warrant first. Many civilians are unaware that they do not have to consent to random police searches, and as a result, most people give tacit permission to be searched, which sometimes results in the discovery of drugs. In the case Florida v. Bostick, the Supreme Court overturned a lower court’s ruling that the defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights were violated when police searched his bag while aboard an interstate Greyhound bus. The Supreme Court decision states that as long as consent is provided, any incriminating evidence discovered during a random search is admissible in court, since any “reasonable” person would feel free to decline police requests to search his or her belongings.

In addition to consent searches, law enforcement are allowed to use pretexts in order to search civilians for drugs. This means that an officer can stop a motorist for a presumed traffic violation, even if his or her true intention is to check whether said motorist is in possession of illegal drugs. In Ohio v. Robinette, the Supreme Court ruled that police are not required to inform motorists during a pretext search that they are not required to consent, though, as Alexander notes, during a traffic stop in which they are already in perceived trouble with law enforcement, most people are unaware of their right to refuse.

Even the right to refuse searches has limits, leaving people of color largely at the mercy of law enforcement during pretext searches. Other Supreme Court rulings have granted officers the power to arrest motorists for minor traffic violations if they do not...

(The entire section contains 1208 words.)

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