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US Supreme Court Upholds Police Terrorizing Seatbelt-law Violators
Commentary on: ATWATER et al. v. CITY OF LAGO VISTA et al.
by Earth
Apr 25, 2001
[Decided April 24, 2001] In a 5-4 ruling on April 24, 2001, the US Supreme Court added another brick to the foundation of our Police State. In an opinion written by justice Souter, usually a somewhat more moderate judge, the Court held that even though the woman was subjected to "pointless indignity" for the commission of a violation of the Texas seatbelt law, her search and seizure was proper by Fourth Amendment standards.

In March 1997, Gail Atwater was:
driving her pickup truck in Lago Vista, Texas, with her 3-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter in the front seat. None of them was wearing a seatbelt. Respondent Bart Turek, a Lago Vista police officer at the time, observed the seatbelt violations and pulled Atwater over.

Atwater asked to take her "frightened, upset, and crying" children to a friend's house nearby, but Turk told her"[y]ou're not going anywhere. Ibid. As it turned out, Atwater's friend learned what was going on and soon arrived to take charge of the children. Turek then handcuffed Atwater, placed her in his squad car, and drove her to the local police station, where booking officers had her remove her shoes, jewelry, and eyeglasses, and empty her pockets. Officers took Atwater's "mug shot" and placed her, alone, in a jail cell for about one hour, after which she was taken before a magistrate and released on $310 bond.1
The Majority decision seems to argue that the Fourth Amendment provides no protection against unreasonable, arbitrary, and mean spirited arrest-cloaked attacks by police against citizens. In a shocking set of statements of fact, the Court found that the police's conduct was without merit and yet was not "unreasonable" in the strict sense of the Fourth Amendment. Souter,for the majority writes:
She was a known and established resident of Lago Vista with no place to hide and no incentive to flee, and common sense says she would almost certainly have buckled up as a condition of driving off with a citation. In her case, the physical incidents of arrest were merely gratuitous humiliations imposed by a police officer who was (at best) exercising extremely poor judgment. Atwater's claim to live free of pointless indignity and confinement clearly outweighs anything the City can raise against it specific to her case.1
Yet, they continue, "[i]f an officer has probable cause to believe that an individual has committed even a very minor criminal offense in his presence, he may, without violating the Fourth Amendment, arrest the offender."

So why did they decide this? Because they argue that a bright line rule about when custodial arrests can be made for trivial offenses is difficult to create, because officers can't be expected to know what is and what is not a jailing offense ("we cannot expect every police officer to know the details of frequently complex penalty schemes"), and that her mistreatment did not represent an indication of an "epidemic of unnecessary minor-offense arrests".

The dissent for this case is written by the sometimes more conservative O'Connor. She argues forcefully that the previous decisions of the Court do not allow for this absurd result. She says "Giving police officers constitutional carte blanche to effect an arrest whenever there is probable cause to believe a fine-only misdemeanor has been committed is irreconcilable with the Fourth Amendment's command that seizures be reasonable."

O'Connor also argues against the majority's Bright Line argument, saying:
"While clarity is certainly a value worthy of consideration in our Fourth Amendment jurisprudence, it by no means trumps the values of liberty and privacy at the heart of the Amendment's protections." She goes on to warn that the Court's current decision endangers many citizens: "The per se rule that the Court creates has potentially serious consequences for the everyday lives of Americans. A broad range of conduct falls into the category of fine-only misdemeanors [including trivial traffic offenses such as not obeying 'warning' signs, minor littering offense, and the like]"

She finishes with a strong warning and mentions the current Racial Profiling issue:
Such unbounded discretion carries with it grave potential for abuse. The majority takes comfort in the lack of evidence of "an epidemic of unnecessary minor-offense arrests." Ante, at 33, and n. 25. But the relatively small number of published cases dealing with such arrests proves little and should provide little solace. Indeed, as the recent debate over racial profiling demonstrates all too clearly, a relatively minor traffic infraction may often serve as an excuse for stopping and harassing an individual.(2)
As a humorous irony, O'Connor mentions, that when Atwater was hand-cuffed and driven to the police station, she was not seat-belted into the police car.

The ACLU filed a good amicus brief (a type of document where a group that is not a party to the case gives arguments and documentation to help the justices make their decision). Among other interesting pieces of their brief, under footnote 18, the ACLU lists 8 states which categorically prohibit custodial arrests for trivial offenses.

The awful implications of this decision are obvious to anyone who doesn't always get along well with police or who may be a member of a race, ethnicity, or social group that is profiled by police as undesirable. The current state of law in the United States is such that every single person has committed offenses and crimes, from engaging the clutch before the seatbelt is fully snapped in, to stepping off the sidewalk, to having a tail-light bulb burned out. The Supreme Court has struck another blow against the concept of a society where individuals can expect reasonable treatment from police. No matter how small your offense, the Supremes tell us that we can be held for 48 hours before being allowed to see a judge, be body cavity searched, and humiliated in front of our children, family, and neighbors.