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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