Police Power Defeats Private Rights

Article excerpt

In March 1997 in Lago Vista, Texas, police officer Bart Turek observed Gail Atwater driving her pickup truck 15 MPH on a residential street with no other traffic, in broad daylight, but in an "unlawful" manner. With lights and siren on, Turek pulled her over.

The officer was "loud and agressive" as he approached Atwater's vehicle. When the woman asked Turek to lower his voice because he was scaring her children, he responded by jabbing his finger in her face and saying, "You're going to jail!" He radioed for backup assistance.

As the "terrified and hysterical" children watched, Turek placed Atwater under arrest, handcuffed her behind her back, placed her in his squad car, and drove her to the local police station. At the station, she was ordered to remove her shoes, jewelry, and eyeglasses and empty her pockets. She was booked, photographed, and placed in jail for an hour, after which she was released on $310 bond.

Atwater's three-year-old was so traumatized by the episode he needed therapy from a child psychologist. Both children remain terrified at the sight of a police car.

Atwater's crime? Driving without her seat belt.

Under Texas law, a front-seat passenger must wear a seat belt or pay a maximum $50 fine--even for repeat offenses. No jail time is ever possible for this class of misdemeanor, known as a petty offense.

Atwater pleaded no contest and paid the $50. She also sued the city for violating her constitutional right under the Fourth Amendment to be free from unreasonable seizures, which she argued she was a victim of due to Turek's heavy-handed response to her minor seat-belt infraction.

The court threw her case out. Because Atwater admitted violating the seat-belt law, and because she conceded that she was not harmed or detained in any way inconsistent with the law, the court held her claim "meritless." She appealed.

A three-judge panel of the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in her favor, concluding that an arrest for a first-time seat-belt offense was unreasonable within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. But the city of Lago Vista requested an "en banc" review (where all 17 judges of the court reconsider the three-judge panel's ruling). The full court reversed the panel, finding the arrest not "unusually harmful to Atwater's privacy interests" and thus reasonable. The mother appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which took the case, Atwater v. Lago Vista.

The Court, which split 5--4 against Atwater, framed the question before it as "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."

The justices conducted an exhaustive legal review of arrests for petty offenses as far back as 1676. It found only "disagreement" among the legal precedents.

The Court noted that "all 50 States and the District of Columbia permit warrantless misdemeanor arrests by at least some (if not all) peace officers without requiring any breach of the peace. …