When David "Chubs" Lee Moore was pulled over in late February 2003, the Portsmouth Police were actually looking for a different guy called Chubs. It turned out not to matter.
Though he was driving on a suspended license, a violation that doesn't carry jail time, Moore was handcuffed on the officers' "prerogative," according to court testimony. He waited in the back of their vehicle for 45 minutes while animal control came to pick up his passenger, a pit bull that seemed "very upset with [the detectives' presence]," according to the Court of Appeals decision.
Then the officers drove Moore to the hotel where he was staying. They searched the room and then Moore, recovering 16 grams of crack and $516 in cash. After admitting it was his, Moore was indicted on a charge of possession with intent to distribute and sent to jail.
So the guy had drugs, a mean dog and was driving without a license. Who would have a problem with the outcome? Not the trial court.
Nevertheless, this month the Virginia Supreme Court overturned Moore's conviction, holding that what the police did was illegal too.
Last year, the Virginia Court of Appeals heard Moore's case, but upheld the decision. There was no question the officer had violated Virginia law by arresting Moore instead of just giving him a citation.
But it's the U.S. Constitution that determines what makes a search legal. The court said that even though the arrest was illegal, the search didn't violate the Constitution and therefore the crack found could be used against Moore in court.
When the police arrested Moore, they didn't know about the drugs. His driving on a suspended license should have gotten him a ticket, and that's it.
"What was at stake would be that someone who has committed even a very minor misdemeanor" littering, say, or driving without a seatbelt could be thrown in jail, says Jane Chittom, an attorney from the Appellate Defenders Office in Richmond, who represented Moore during the appeals process.
Chittom convinced the Virginia Supreme Court that the search was unconstitutional and never should have taken place. The state office of the attorney general, who prosecuted the case, declines to comment.
The ruling "clarifies for police departments that it is not a matter of their discretion whether to arrest or give a summons," Chittom says "that they have to follow the dictates of the statute."