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Wednesday, April 23, 2008
Rather than issuing the summons required by Virginia law, police arrested Moore for the misdemeanor of driving on a suspended license. A search incident to the arrest yielded crack cocaine, for which Moore was charged and tried. The trial court declined to suppress the evidence on Fourth Amendment grounds. The Virginia Supreme Court reversed, reasoning that the search violated the Fourth Amendment because the arresting officers should have issued a citation under state law, and the Fourth Amendment does not permit search incident to citation. In a unanimous decision written by Justice Scalia, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed, holding that police did not violate the Fourth Amendment when they made an arrest that was based on probable cause but prohibited by state law, or when they performed a search incident to the arrest. A unanimous Supreme Court found no historical support for the notion that the Founders intended to incorporate statutes into the Fourth Amendment; neither the common law nor statutes of the Founding era support the defendant’s contention. Where history does not provide a conclusive answer, the Court analyzes a search or seizure in light of traditional reasonableness standards "by assessing, on the one hand, the degree to which it intrudes upon an individual’s privacy and, on the other, the degree to which it is needed for the promotion of legitimate governmental interests." Wyoming v. Houghton, 526 U. S. 295, 300 (1999); see Wilson v. Arkansas, 514 U. S. 927, 931 (1995). Applying that methodology, the Court has previously held that when an officer has probable cause to believe a person committed even a minor crime, the arrest is constitutionally reasonable. Atwater v. Lago Vista, 532 U. S. 318 (2001). A State’s choice of a more restrictive search-and-seizure policy does not render less restrictive ones unreasonable, and hence unconstitutional. While States are free to require their officers to engage in nuanced determinations of the need for arrest as a matter of their own law, the Fourth Amendment should reflect administrable bright-line rules. Incorporating state arrest rules into the Constitution would make Fourth Amendment protections as complex as the underlying state law, and variable from place to place and time to time. The Court sustained the search, as well as the arrest. Having arrested Moore, the officers were also entitled to search him, as in any other search incident to arrest, to ensure their safety and to safeguard evidence. Only Justice Ginsburg, who filed a separate concurrence, saw historical support for the defendant’s view, but even she was persuaded that Atwater governs the outcome here.