Thursday, April 24, 2008

SCOTUS holds that state law does not affect the enforcement of the Fourth Amendment

Yesterday the Supreme Court in Virginia v. Moore considered whether a police officer violates the Fourth Amendment by making an arrest based on probable cause but prohibited by state law. The officers in the case stopped Moore because they heard over the police radio he was driving with a suspended license. The officers subsequently searched Moore and found that he was carrying 16 grams of crack cocaine. Under state law, the officers should have issued Moore a summons instead of arresting him. Driving on a suspended license is not an arrestable offense in Virginia.

Moore was charged with possessing cocaine with the intent to distribute in violation of Virginia law. He argued that the evidence of the drugs should be suppressed because it was obtained in violation of state law. The case eventually made its way to the Virginia Supreme Court. The Virginia Supreme Court held that because the arresting officers should have issued Moore a citation under state law, and the Fourth Amendment does not permit a search incident to a citation, the arrest search violated the Fourth Amendment.

The Supreme Court reversed. The Court concluded that a warrantless arrest for a crime committed in the presence of an arresting officer is reasonable under the Constitution, and that while states are free to regulate such arrests however they desire, state restrictions do not alter the Fourth Amendment’s protections. No matter what state law says about making an arrest or issuing a citation, the Court found that the interests justifying a search are present whenever an officer makes an arrest. A search enables the police officer to safeguard evidence and insure his safety.

In sum, while the police officer did violate the state law regarding arrest rules, the Court concluded that it was not the province of the Fourth Amendment to enforce state law. Hence, the Amendment does not require the exclusion of evidence obtained from a constitutionally permissible arrest (even if the arrest is impermissible under state law).

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