Unreasonable Supreme Court

Arrest powers: Ruling that police can jail citizens for failing to wear seat belts defies common sense.

April 30, 2001

SUPREME COURT justices must have left their sense of reason at home when a narrow majority ruled that police can arrest, handcuff and jail people for even the most trivial of offenses.

The 5-4 decision reached deep into English and early American law. But it came back with an terribly wrong and bizarre interpretation of what "unreasonable" meant then and what it means now.

The court declared it was perfectly reasonable for police to arrest and jail a Texas mother for failing to buckle up while driving.

Its decision made a mockery of the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures.

To be sure, the Texas woman committed a crime -- a traffic violation. But until now, citations have handled offenses like those just fine.

Now, unbuckled mothers, jaywalkers and litterbugs can be put in cuffs, then thrown into the slammer alongside murderers and armed robbers. How reasonable is that?

You don't have to worry about getting locked up in Maryland for driving without a seat belt -- though law and common sense tell you to buckle up. Here, you'll get the appropriate ticket. State law prevents police arrests for traffic crimes unless other circumstances exist, such as drunken driving, failure to produce identification or attempting to flee.

But who knows what could happen when you cross the state line? Many states don't expressly limit police authority for traffic crimes.

Commit an offense, even a minor one, and the Fourth Amendment won't protect you from jail any longer.

That's unreasonable, and it definitely isn't common sense.

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