04/24/2008

Supreme Court broadens police searches

The Associated Press
For more law enforcement legal information, read P1 expert Ken Wallentine's column.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that police can conduct searches and seize evidence after arrests that may turn out to have violated state law.

The unanimous decision came in a case from Portsmouth, Virginia, where city detectives seized crack cocaine from a motorist after arresting him for a traffic ticket offense. David Lee Moore was pulled over for driving on a suspended license. The violation is a minor crime in Virginia and calls for the police to issue a court summons and to let the driver go.

Instead, the detectives arrested Moore and prosecutors in the case said that drugs taken from him in a subsequent search could be used against him as evidence.

"We reaffirm against a novel challenge what we have signaled for half a century," Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the court. Scalia said that when officers have probable cause to believe a person had committed a crime in their presence, the Fourth Amendment permits them to make an arrest and to search the suspect to safeguard evidence and to ensure their own safety.

Moore was convicted on a drug charge and sentenced to three and a half years in prison.

The Virginia Supreme Court had ruled that the police should have released Moore and that they could not lawfully conduct a search. State law, the Virginia Court said, restricted the officers to issuing a ticket in exchange for a promise to appear later in court.

Virginia courts had dismissed the indictment against Moore. But the Virginia attorney general said an arrest was reasonable, under the constitutional definition, if the officers have probable cause to believe a suspect has committed a crime.

Moore argued that the Fourth Amendment permits a search only after a lawful state arrest.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said she found more support for Moore's position in previous court cases than the rest of the Supreme Court had. But she said she agreed that the arrest and search of Moore had been constitutional, even though it violated Virginia law. The Bush administration and attorneys general from 18 states had supported the Virginia prosecutors. Looking to state laws to provide the basis for searches would introduce uncertainty into the legal system, the 18 states said in court papers.

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