Strength, rights, remedies

Sometimes, rights may be strong, but remedies weak.

Virginia v Moore [2008] USSC 06-1082 (23 April 2008) illustrates strong State rights, weak State remedies, and weak Constitutional rights.

In the circumstances that were held to exist, State law required a police officer to issue a summons, and not to arrest, Mr “Chubs” Moore, who had been apprehended driving while his licence was suspended. Instead, he was arrested for that offence. After a little delay, over which he did not complain in this appeal, he was searched and 16 g crack cocaine was found in his possession. He was charged with possession of the drug with intent to distribute it, and eventually he was sentenced to 5 years’ imprisonment. The Virginia Supreme Court held that since the arrest was unlawful, the search violated the Fourth Amendment, and the evidence should have been ruled inadmissible.

To avoid the unpalatable conclusion that the evidence had to be excluded, the US Supreme Court applied a line of its cases and held that, notwithstanding the illegality of the arrest in Virginia State law, the arrest was constitutionally reasonable.

The reasoning here is that, while the State may give its citizens protections greater than those required by the Constitution, that does not affect the interpretation of the Fourth Amendment. Scalia J (Roberts CJ, Stevens, Kennedy, Souter, Thomas, Breyer and Alito JJ joining – Ginsburg J concurred separately) put it this way:

“In a long line of cases, we have said that when an officer has probable cause to believe a person committed even a minor crime in his presence, the balancing of private and public interests is not in doubt. The arrest is constitutionally reasonable….e.g., Devenpeck v. Alford, 543 U. S. 146, 152 (2004); Gerstein v. Pugh, 420 U. S. 103, 111 (1975); Brinegar v. United States, 338 U. S. 160, 164, 170, 175–176 (1949).

“ Our decisions counsel against changing this calculus when a State chooses to protect privacy beyond the level that the Fourth Amendment requires. We have treated additional protections exclusively as matters of state law. In Cooper v. California, 386 U. S. 58 (1967), we reversed a state court that had held the search of a seized vehicle to be in violation of the Fourth Amendment because state law did not explicitly authorize the search. We concluded that whether state law authorized the search was irrelevant. States, we said, remained free “to impose higher standards on searches and seizures than required by the Federal Constitution,” id., at 62, but regardless of state rules, police could search a lawfully seized vehicle as a matter of federal constitutional law.”

The discussion has thus shifted from the lawfulness of the arrest (unlawful in State law, but lawful in Federal law) to the reasonableness of the search. In Virginia State law, improperly obtained evidence is, according to Scalia J, not usually excluded, which is why Mr Moore was convicted. He was arguing that the generous protections given to individuals by Virginia’s law should be accompanied, not by a balancing exercise, but by a “bright line” rule excluding the evidence.

Scalia J held that the search was not unconstitutional, and added:

“If we concluded otherwise, we would often frustrate rather than further state policy. Virginia chooses to protect individual privacy and dignity more than the Fourth Amendment requires, but it also chooses not to attach to violations of its arrest rules the potent remedies that federal courts have applied to Fourth Amendment violations. Virginia does not, for example, ordinarily exclude from criminal trials evidence obtained in violation of its statutes. … Moore would allow Virginia to accord enhanced protection against arrest 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.”

So, Mr Moore’s argument for strong remedies for strong rights was defeated by the Court’s preference for strong remedies for weak rights.

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Spot the difference

The actual and potential harm caused by an offence is a significant consideration in sentencing. It would be natural to expect that drug offending carries various levels of harm, and that the nature of the drug and its quantity are relevant to assessing the harm caused by a particular offence. However, in the absence of specific legislative guidance, it may be difficult to convince a court that an offence in respect of one drug is less serious than the same offence in respect of another drug.

In Adams v R [2008] HCA 15 (23 April 2008) this argument was presented but the Court held that there was an insufficient foundation, legal or factual, for it to be considered.

Gleeson CJ, Hayne, Crennan and Kiefel JJ jointly, after a slightly inaccurate summary in para 3 (inaccurate in that the contrast between the two legislative schemes mentioned there is not as great as suggested because harm-based arguments are available under each, and the classification of MDMA in New Zealand is not as the Court was advised), observed that there are difficulties in contending that offending involving one drug in a particular category poses more or less harm than the same offending involving another drug in that category:

“[9] The appellant’s entire argument is based on the factual assertion that ‘MDMA … is less harmful to users and to society than heroin.’ The quantities in contemplation for the purposes of that comparison are unspecified. How much MDMA is being compared with how much heroin? Other aspects of the meaning of the proposition are equally unclear. Harm to users and society is a protean concept. Counsel had understandable difficulty explaining exactly what the proposition means, let alone demonstrating, by evidence available to the sentencing judge or matters of which a court could take judicial notice, that it was true. What kinds of user, and what kinds of harm to society, are under consideration? The social evils of trading in illicit drugs extend far beyond the physical consequences to individual consumers. As the Victorian Court of Appeal pointed out in R v Pidoto and O’Dea [2006] VSCA 185; (2006) 14 VR 269 at 282 [59], ‘questions arise as to whether the perniciousness of a substance is to be assessed by reference to the potential consequences of its ingestion for the user, or its effect upon the user’s behaviour and social interactions, or the overall social and economic costs to the community.’ Furthermore, in relation to some of these matters, scientific knowledge changes, and opinions differ, over time. Generalisations which seek to differentiate between the evils of the illegal trade in heroin and MDMA are to be approached with caution, and in the present case are not sustained by evidence, or material of which judicial notice can be taken.”

In New Zealand there has been some recognition of differences between drugs of the same class. In Albon v R 26/6/96, CA544/95 a scientific report was used to compare the potency of MDA with other class A controlled drugs, and in R v O’Donnell 1/8/96, CA101/96, a distinction was recognised between drugs of class A, according to whether they were addictive or non-addictive. But in R v Stanaway [1997] 3 NZLR 129; (1997) 15 CRNZ 32 (CA) it was held that the criminality must be assessed in the circumstances of each particular case and that potential for addiction may not be the predominant measure of perniciousness in the light of physical and psychological effects and other social considerations. In R v Arthur [2005] 3 NZLR 739; (2005) 21 CRNZ 453 (CA), the Court recognised, at para 13, that the distinction between the hallucinogenic and the non-hallucinogenic Class A drugs may be relevant, and for the purposes of the case recognised that methamphetamine was non-hallucinogenic.

The point made by the High Court of Australia in Adams v R is that submissions of this nature must be supported by evidence, before the court will even begin to grapple with how it should make distinctions between similar offending in respect of different drugs.