New Supreme Court Decision-April 23, 2008

In Virginia v. Moore, case number 06-1082, the Supreme Court today decided that just because police officers violate state law by arresting a person for an offense that is not subject to arrest, a search incident to that
(unlawful) arrest does not violate the Fourth Amendment. And it was a unanimous decision (Justice Ginsburg only concurred in the judgment).

Below is Scotusblog’s description of the case for those that (like me) can’t yet stomach reading the actual decision.

In the only decision of the day, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously on Wednesday that police do not act unconstitutionally if they conduct a search following an arrest, even if the arrest violated a state law. The ruling, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, came in Virginia v. Moore (06-1082) involving the discovery of crack cocaine in a search of a driver who had been stopped for driving on a suspended license.

So long as the police had probable cause to make the arrest, the Court said, it makes no difference that a state law barred police from making an arrest when the crime involved was only a misdemeanor traffic offense. “An arrest based on probable cause serves interests that have long been seen as sufficient to justify the seizure” of evidence after the arrest, the opinion added..

In the circumstance that confronted David Lee Moore of Portsmouth, Va., in 2003, police were supposed to give him only a ticket. But, instead, they arrested him, took him to a hotel where they conducted a personal search of Moore, finding about 16grams of cocaine in a jacket pocket and $516 in cash in a pants pocket. The evidence was used to convict Moore of possession of cocaine with intent to distribute it. He was sentenced to five years in prison, with 18 months of the sentence suspended.

The Court noted that, with its policy on ticketing only after a traffic offense, “Virginia chooses to protect individual privacy and dignity more than the Fourth Amendment requires.” But, it added, that choice does not make a resulting search invalid under the federal Constitution.

“Moore would allow Virginia to accord enhanced protection only on pain of accompanying that protection with federal remedies for Fourth Amendment violations, which often include the exclusionary rule. States unwilling to lose control over the remedy would have to abandon restrictions on arrest altogether. This is an odd consequence of a provision designed to protect against searches and seizures,” Scalia wrote.

The opinion was joined by all of the members of the Court except Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She supported the result only, saying she would read the historical record differently.

David Finn

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