Court allows arrest, jail in minor crimes

Driver handcuffed for unused seat belts loses suit on rights

`Not so extraordinary'

Justices' ruling raises fear `police can arrest anyone'

April 25, 2001|By Thomas Healy | Thomas Healy,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that the police may arrest, handcuff and jail people for minor criminal offenses such as seat belt violations even if a conviction for the offense carries no prison term and is punishable only by a small fine.

In a 5-4 decision, the court upheld the dismissal of a lawsuit filed by Gail Atwater, a Texas woman who was pulled over in 1997 by a police officer because neither she nor her two young children were wearing seat belts. The officer handcuffed Atwater, drove her to the police station and locked her in a jail cell for an hour before she was released on bail.

Atwater claimed that the officer violated her Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure. In its ruling yesterday, the court agreed that the officer's actions were unfounded and that he should have simply given Atwater a ticket and urged her to buckle up. But after reviewing the history of police arrest power, the court concluded that the incident was not a violation of her constitutional rights.

"The arrest and booking were inconvenient and embarrassing to Atwater, but not so extraordinary as to violate the Fourth Amendment," Justice David H. Souter wrote for the majority.

Souter observed that Atwater's case was rare and that many states have expressly limited police authority to arrest people for minor traffic violations. In Maryland, police can make arrests for traffic offenses only under certain circumstances, such as when the driver is drunk, fails to provide reliable identification or tries to flee.

But some legal scholars noted that more than half the states do not limit police power to make arrests.

In those states, they said, the court's ruling would give police the green light to jail not only those who violate traffic laws but also people who commit such minor offenses as jaywalking or littering.

"The result is that on the highway, where anyone driving for more than a few minutes is going to commit some violation and is therefore literally an outlaw, the police can arrest anyone," said Sherry Colb, a professor of law at Rutgers University. "The combination of that discretion, with the tendency of law enforcement to target particular groups, is really a lethal combination."

Colb suggested that the decision would also expand the power of police to search cars for drugs or other contraband. Under previous Supreme Court rulings, officers conducting a roadside stop could search a car only if they had reason to believe they would find a weapon.

But now, Colb said, police could choose to arrest the driver and then search the car as part of the arrest. Such searches, which have been upheld by the Supreme Court, entitle police to scour the car's interior and then impound it and search the trunk.

Atwater's case began in March 1997, when she was driving her 3-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter home from soccer practice in Lago Vista, Texas. All three were riding in the front seat of Atwater's pickup truck, but none were wearing seat belts.

`You're going to jail'

A police officer noticed the seat belt violations and pulled the truck over. According to Atwater's lawsuit, the same officer had stopped her three months before for the same reason but had let her go when it turned out that they were, in fact, wearing seat belts.

This time, Atwater alleges, the officer approached the truck and yelled, "We've met before" and "You're going to jail." He then called for backup and asked Atwater for her license and insurance information. When Atwater replied that she did not have the papers because her purse had been stolen the day before, the officer placed her under arrest.

A friend who had been alerted to the incident arrived and took Atwater's children away.

Atwater pleaded no contest to the seatbelt violation and paid a $50 fine. But she later sued the officer and the city, arguing that the Fourth Amendment bars warrantless arrests for minor offenses that are punishable only by a fine. Two lower courts rejected her claim, and the Supreme Court affirmed those decisions yesterday.

In his opinion for the majority, Souter wrote that the history of police arrest power did not support Atwater's claim. He also rejected her request to create a rule of constitutional law that would bar police from making arrests for such minor offenses.

One problem with Atwater's request, Souter wrote, is that it would require police to determine on the spot whether the crime committed by a person carried a jail term. He also said there was little reason to create a rule, given that few cases such as Atwater's had arisen.

Yesterday's ruling was notable for the fact that the majority opinion was written by Souter, who typically sides with the court's liberal bloc. His opinion was joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor filed a dissenting opinion that was joined by Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer.

Rights of individuals stressed

O'Connor argued that the state's interest in arresting offenders of minor crimes did not outweigh the rights of individuals to be free from unreasonable seizures.

"If the state has decided that a fine, and not imprisonment, is the appropriate punishment for an offense, the state's interest in taking a person suspected of committing that offense into custody is surely limited, at best," she wrote.

O'Connor said she would not rule out arrests for minor violations in all situations.

But when an offense that carries only a fine has been committed, she said, police officers should be allowed to make an arrest only with sufficient justification, such as to prevent a flight from prosecution.

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