Today’s Supreme Court ruling in Virginia v. Moore upheld the use of evidence seized during arrests that are illegal under state law. It’s a terrible ruling to be sure, but it’s hardly the deathblow to our 4th Amendment rights that some may assume. As always, we hope concerned citizens will take a moment to learn what the ruling does and does not do and remember that asserting your constitutional rights during police encounters remains the best choice.
David L. Moore was arrested for driving on a suspended license, subsequently searched and found with crack. It turned out that under VA law he should have been issued a citation and not arrested, thus the search that followed his arrest (and turned up the crack) shouldn’t actually have happened. The Supreme Court unanimously upheld the evidence anyway, finding that when officers have valid probable cause to believe a crime has been committed, they may arrest and search the suspect, even if state laws prohibit arrests for that particular offense.
As absurd as it is to uphold evidence seized in violation of state law and allow that evidence to be used in state court, my main concern with this ruling is that it will be widely misunderstood to permit illegal arrests and searches on a massive scale. It doesn’t do that. We’re not talking about any illegal arrest, we’re talking about arrests for actual crimes that police can prove, but for which suspects aren’t typically cuffed and taken downtown. So yes, the ruling is disgraceful, but the circumstances under which it applies are relatively narrow.
The worst-case scenario here is that police may, in some cases, perform arrests for misdemeanor offenses that normally result in a ticket simply to justify a search of the suspect or his/her vehicle. That’s awful, but it’s not a new problem. This same concern has been voiced for some time with regards to the Court’s rulings in Whren v. U.S. and Atwater v. Lago Vista, which combined permit police to stop vehicles for any observed infraction and perform arrests for any misdemeanor offense.
The real problem here is that police have long been permitted by the Court to search the suspect (U.S. v. Robinson) and the passenger compartment (New York v. Belton) of the vehicle when any arrest is made. The policy is intended to provide for officer safety and prevent the destruction of evidence, yet an arrested suspect is typically handcuffed and rendered immobile before the search even takes place. Moreover, there’s no rational basis to assume that someone arrested for driving with a suspended license, for example, would attempt an escape or try to destroy evidence to begin with.
In sum, today’s ruling possesses fundamental logical flaws, but doesn’t expand police power in any substantial new directions. The worst aspects of the Moore decision are derived from prior bad rulings that we’ve already been living under for a long time. This Supreme Court is no friend of the 4th Amendment, but the damage they’ve inflicted is compounded when civil libertarians respond by prematurely eulogizing our constitutional rights. Anyone who needs a reminder that the 4th Amendment ain’t dead should check out these glorious success stories.