Thursday, April 24, 2008

Virginia v. Moore

The Supreme Court just issued a new search and seizure opinion yesterday. The case deals with the conviction of a defendant for possession of crack cocaine. Moore was pulled over, and officers discovered that his license was suspended. In Virginia, driving on a suspended license (dosl) is a misdemeanor pushishable by up to 1 year in jail. Although a crime, Virginia state law forbids officers from making arrests for dosl; they are required to write citations and release suspects.

Regardless, the officers arrested Moore in violation of the law. A search incident to arrest revealed the crack, which led to a conviction. The Virginia Supreme reversed the probation on the grounds that a search incident to an illegal arrest is an illegal search that requires suppression of the evidence. The US Supreme Court has now reverse the state supreme court and held that the search was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment because the arrest would have been reasonable under federal law regardless of the state law restrictions.

Here is the problem that I have with the opinion: A police officer employed by a state agency only has those arrest powers specifically granted by that state. If the state tells the officer, you can only do A, B, and C, he has no authority to do D. This is particularly true when the state tells the officer, "We specifically forbid you from doing D." So if the officer actually does "D," he does so without lawful authority--he does so illegally. The state employed officer cannot borrow his actual authority from federal law. The Supreme Court has essentially said, "Since a federal agent would be allowed to do it, the state agent can exceed his lawful authority to arrest and subsequently search a suspect."

It just doesn't make a lot of sense to me. The Supreme Court has justified the decision by saying it won't let state law, which may restrict state action more than the federal constitution, dictate federal constututional standards. That is a true, important policy. But in applying that rule, the Supreme Court has authorized state officers to exceed the limited authority given to them by their employers. It ignores the fact that the arrest was illegal at its inception.

I feel as if Pandora's box has been opened allowing for great erosion of civil liberties in criminal court.

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