Court OKs arrest for not wearing seat belt
WASHINGTON (AP) – A divided Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that police can arrest and handcuff people for minor traffic offenses, saying the authority flows naturally from the right to pull someone over.
The court ruled 5-4 in the case of a Texas woman handcuffed in front of her small children and briefly jailed for failing to wear a seat belt.
Gail Atwater said the belts were unfastened only to help the family peer out for a distraught 4-year-old’s lost toy. A police officer saw her as endangering her children and ordered her to jail.
”The question is whether the Fourth Amendment forbids a warrantless arrest for a minor criminal offense, such as a misdemeanor seat belt violation punishable only by a fine. We hold that it does not,” Justice David H. Souter wrote for the court majority.
Unpersuaded, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote for the minority that the ruling ”cloaks the pointless indignity that Gail Atwater suffered with the mantle of reasonableness.”
The decision could affect any of the nation’s 185 million licensed drivers. Texas is one of several states with laws specifically allowing this kind of arrest, and the Supreme Court ruling means that other states could pass similar laws without fear of constitutional problems.
Although Atwater is white, Steven Shapiro, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union, said he was concerned that police stopping minority drivers through racial profiling would use her case to justify arrests.
The issue for the court was not whether Officer Bart Turek had the right to stop Atwater in the 1997 incident in Lago Vista, Texas. He did, because with one look at 4-year-old Mackinley’s face pressed against the windshield of Atwater’s pickup truck, Turek saw a clear violation.
True enough, Atwater conceded. But she contended Turek did not then have the right to arrest her and place her in a cell for an hour before she posted bail. That was, in effect, a punishment worse than the maximum $50 fine the state could collect for a seat belt violation, and was thus unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment, she said.
Police officers at the side of a road should not have to figure out where to draw that line, Souter wrote on behalf of himself and an unusual lineup of justices.
”There is no dispute that Officer Turek had probable cause to believe that Atwater had committed a crime in his presence. She admits that neither she nor her children were wearing seat belts,” Souter wrote for the majority.
”Turek was accordingly authorized (but) not required … to make a custodial arrest without balancing costs and benefits to determine whether or not Atwater’s arrest was in some sense necessary.”
Atwater’s arrest was surely embarrassing and may not have been necessary, but it was nonetheless constitutional, Souter wrote. Such cases are rare, and do not merit ”development of a new and distinct body of constitutional law,” he wrote.
Souter, normally one of the court’s more liberal members, was joined by swing voter Justice Anthony M. Kennedy and the court’s three most conservative members: Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia.
The court’s other traditional swing voter, O’Connor, led the four-member minority.
The majority ignored the constitutional guarantee against unreasonable search and seizure ”in the name of administrative ease,” she wrote.
Atwater was driving her two children home from soccer practice when a prized toy – her son’s rubber model of a bat – flew onto the roadside of Dawn Drive.
The child screamed for her to go back and look, Atwater said.
Atwater said she allowed her children to unbuckle their seat belts, as she did, so all could crane their necks while she slowly retraced their path.
There was no other traffic on the road, she said, until Turek’s cruiser appeared.
Turek handcuffed Atwater’s wrists behind her back and placed her in a police cruiser. A friend came to pick up Atwater’s children while she was taken to a police station. There, police took her mug shot and placed alone in a cell until she posted $310 in bail.
She later pleaded no contest and paid the $50 fine.
Atwater and her husband sued the city and the police officer, saying the arrest violated her constitutional rights. The case never went to trial.
”What happened to Gail is not unusual,” her husband, Michael Haas, said after the ruling. ”It’s happened to a lot of people. We think people are brought up to think police are good and no one wants to believe some incredible story of what happened to Gail.”
The case is Atwater v. Lago Vista, 99-1408.
On the Net:
Supreme Court: http://www.supremecourtus.gov
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