"Got time to pencil in a five o'clock arrest, Mrs. Cleaver?"
You're a cooperative citizen, you respect the need for law enforcement. But when you find yourself standing for a mug shot and being fingerprinted, it seems a little overboard for violating seat-belt laws.
Gail Atwater of Lago Vista, Texas, thought so and took her objection all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Atwater is the mother arrested, handcuffed and briefly jailed in 1997 for not having her children in seat belts. The arrest was "inconvenient to Atwater," wrote Justice David Souter, "but not so extraordinary as to violate the Fourth Amendment," which prohibits unreasonable search and seizure.
Atwater, arrested on her way home from her children's soccer practice, was freed upon posting bond. After she pled no contest, a court convicted her and handed down the maximum sentence: a $50 fine.
Atwater and her husband sued the city and the police officer who arrested her, accusing them of violating her constitutional rights. The arrest was unreasonable, the Atwaters argued, because the offense didn't even allow for the possibility of jail time.
A federal judge threw out the lawsuit, a ruling upheld by the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which found the arrest reasonable because it had not been carried out in an "extraordinary manner." True, police hadn't flown in army gunships or a SWAT team to deal with this soccer mom.
In a 5-4 split, the Supreme Court agreed the arrest was constitutionally valid. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor dissented, writing, "It does not make sense for the majority to say both that Atwater's arrest served no state purpose and also to say that it passed constitutional muster." In other words, why arrest someone who is no danger to society?
"Because the court's position is inconsistent with the explicit guarantee of the Fourth Amendment, I dissent," O'Connor wrote.
But Texas law allows an arrest for routine traffic violations other than speeding. The lawyer for the city of Lago Vista emphasized this point, arguing, "Police often don't have enough information to know if someone's actions are a misdemeanor or felony."
While it can be said the Supreme Court did nothing more than uphold a state's right to make its own traffic laws, it also confirms the present Supreme Court's pattern of expanding police powers.
Fortunately Ohio does not use the same standard as Texas. In fact, Ohio moved further away from this in 1994.
"Under the Ohio Revised Code, a police officer may only take someone into custody when they have committed an offense that could carry the possibility for jail time," says Charles McFadden, a retired Columbus police officer.
"No, we don't arrest people for things like seat belt violations," says Lt. Ray Ruberg, spokesman for the Cincinnati Police Division.
Of course, no rules are without exceptions. When Cincinnati Police officers chased Timothy Thomas last month, in a pursuit that ended Thomas' life and ignited violent unrest, officers sought to arrest him on outstanding warrants. Although 12 of the 14 warrants were for traffic offenses, many of them failure to wear a seat belt, Thomas wasn't being chased for breaking traffic laws but for failing to pay the fines or appear in court after he had been cited.
That might be small comfort to Thomas' family, but if nothing else, it shows Gail Atwater didn't have it as bad as she imagined. She was only handcuffed in front of her kids and hauled off to jail. The arresting officer didn't shoot her.
The Supreme Court's ruling upholding Atwater's arrest doesn't quite mean we are a step closer to martial law. But if you have a habit of not signaling when you turn, it might be wise to cross-reference your travel plans against the local traffic policies. Of course, there is more to consider than arrest policies for seat belt scofflaws. If you have a hankering for carrying a loaded Magnum into a steakhouse, Texas has no law against concealed weapons.
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