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Safe From Unlawful Searches and Seizures?

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January 14, 2008

Today the U.S. Supreme Court heard Virginia v. Moore, a Fourth Amendment case that’s been wending through the judicial system for nearly five years.

The petitioner, David Lee Moore, happened to be driving by police officers Anthony and McAndrew on February 20, 2003, in Portsmouth, Va., at just about the moment that Detective B.J. Karpowski was alerting them to keep an eye out for an ex-con nicknamed “Chubs,” who was believed to be driving with a suspended license.

The “Chubs” Karpowski was referring to was Christopher Delbridge, a man just released from a federal prison whose driving privileges the detective knew were suspended. But, as Moore’s luck would have it, he shared with Delbridge this unfortunate nickname. In fact, “Chubs” is the name that officer Anthony knew Moore by. Moore also happened to be driving on a suspended license.

And so it came to pass that cops looking for Delbridge that day, found Moore.

Operating a vehicle with a suspended license in Virginia is a Class 1 misdemeanor offense, and officers are required to do nothing more than issue a citation to appear in court, and then release the offender. But rather than simply cite and release Moore, officers Anthony and McAndrew chose to handcuff and arrest him, an option unavailable to them under Virginia state law.

“Do you have any drugs on you?” officer Anthony asked Moore, adding, “where are you staying?”

Moore told him he was staying at an Econo-Lodge in Chesapeake. The officers asked him to sign a consent form allowing them to search his hotel room without a warrant. He signed the form. The officers searched Moore’s room, then searched Moore himself and discovered that he had 16 grams of crack cocaine and $516 in his pants pockets.

At his trial for possession of drugs with intent to distribute, Moore protested the use of the drug evidence. The search violated, among other things, his Fourth Amendment right protecting him against unreasonable searches and seizures without a warrant. In addition, the officers violated a state law that prohibits arrests for misdemeanors. But Moore’s trial judge didn’t buy these arguments. He convicted him.

A three-judge panel of the Virginia Court of Appeals found the search illegal and threw out the verdict. But when Virginia’s attorneys appealed this verdict before the full, 11-judge panel, the court’s majority reinstated Moore’s conviction. While conceding that state law forbade arresting Moore simply for driving with a suspended license, the court made a confounding decision that neither the arrest nor the subsequent search violated the Fourth Amendment. Their reasoning? An arrest based on “probable cause,” which the majority found Moore’s to be, is not unconstitutional. Therefore, the subsequent search did not violate the Fourth Amendment either.

Moore’s attorneys took the second decision from the appeals court to the Virginia Supreme Court, which, in a unanimous decision, reversed the lower court’s second ruling.

Now Moore finds himself before the U.S. Supreme Court today. The high court will settle once and for all whether the Virginia police officers violated Moore’s Fourth Amendment rights, as our friend-of-the-court brief maintains. We hope the justices will find that officers Anthony and McAndrews acted outside the rule of law by violating Moore’s constitutional right against unreasonable searches and seizures.

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