Police Can Arrest for Minor Offenses

ByABC News
April 24, 2001, 10:18 AM

April 24 -- Police can arrest and handcuff people even forminor offenses punishable only by a fine, the Supreme Court saidtoday in the case of a motorist arrested and jailed for notwearing a seat belt.

Ruling 5-4 in a case that could affect anyone who drives a car,the justices said such an arrest does not violate theConstitution's Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonableseizures.

Police generally can arrest anyone they see breaking the law,the court said as it barred a Texas woman from suing the officerwho handcuffed her and took her to jail.

The Fourth Amendment protects "the right of the people to besecure against unreasonable searches and seizures." A lowercourt had ruled that Gail Atwater could not sue over her arrestbecause the officer did not violate her constitutional rights.

Atwater was driving her two children home from soccer practicein 1997 in Lago Vista, Texas, when she was stopped by a policeofficer who had noticed the three were not wearing seat belts.

Handcuffs, Mug Shots, Just an Inconvenience?

Texas law allows police to make arrests for routine trafficviolations, except for speeding. The officer arrested Atwater,handcuffed her hands behind her back and took her to the citypolice station. A friend looked after her children and her pickuptruck was towed away.

Atwater's mug shot was taken and she was released after postingbond. She later pleaded no contest to the seat belt offense andpaid the maximum $50 fine.

Atwater and her husband, Michael Haas, sued the city and thepolice officer, saying the arrest violated her constitutionalrights.

The high court majority rejected her argument that police shouldnot have arrested her for a crime that would carry no jail time.

"The arrest and booking were inconvenient to Atwater, but notso extraordinary as to violate the Fourth Amendment," JusticeDavid H. Souter wrote for the majority.

State Practices Vary

Souter was joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist andJustices Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia.