Probable Cause, Constitutional Reasonableness and the Unrecognized Point of a 'Pointless Indignity'

Josh Bowers

University of Virginia School of Law

March 2014

Stanford Law Review Vol. 66, 2014
Virginia Public Law and Legal Theory Research Paper No. 2013-24

A police officer needs probable cause to make an arrest. But, almost always, he needs no more. In this way, an arrest may be constitutionally reasonable, even if it is entirely unreasonable by any plausible moral or instrumental measure. Indeed, the Court has upheld even an arrest that it termed a “gratuitous humiliation” and a “pointless indignity.” In this article, I examine what accounts for the Court’s prevailing methodological approach to Fourth Amendment reasonableness, and I evaluate whether the Court’s reasoning withstands scrutiny. Specifically, I trace the Court’s methodology back to a particular conception of the legality principle, whereby formalistic measures are crafted around suspicion of guilt and are treated as exclusive. I offer contrary reasons, however, to conclude that the legality principle’s chief purpose (as a safeguard against the arbitrary exercise of executive discretion) is better served by a two-ply constitutional test that would demand both probable cause and general reasonableness. That is, I submit that probable cause might work best as a special supplement to otherwise relevant qualitative considerations (and not as a special substitute). To support this claim, I focus narrowly on one particular qualitative consideration that probable cause has almost completely cannibalized. That consideration is dignity. It is not my purpose, however, to see the Fourth Amendment reoriented around dignity. Dignity matters, but neither it nor probable cause (nor anything else) is all that matters. I rely upon dignity as a placeholder for any of the many qualitative considerations that a quantitative proxy for constitutional reasonableness has unjustifiably ignored.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 67

Keywords: Fourth Amendment, probable cause, constitutional reasonableness, general reasonableness, arrest discretion, dignity, legality, Atwater v. Lago Vista, Safford Unified School District v. Redding, Whren v. United States

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Date posted: August 15, 2013 ; Last revised: March 24, 2014

Suggested Citation

Bowers, Josh, Probable Cause, Constitutional Reasonableness and the Unrecognized Point of a 'Pointless Indignity' (March 2014). Stanford Law Review Vol. 66, 2014; Virginia Public Law and Legal Theory Research Paper No. 2013-24. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2309612

Contact Information

Josh Bowers (Contact Author)
University of Virginia School of Law ( email )
580 Massie Road
Charlottesville, VA 22903
United States

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