Dec. 3, 2000 -- Gail Atwater couldn’t have guessed how much trouble her 4-year-old sons lost toy could cause her — let alone that she’d be arguing about the consequences three years later before the U.S. Supreme Court.
It began in 1997, when the boy’s suction-operated plastic toy bat apparently lost its grip and fell from the window of Atwater’s car as she was driving her children home from soccer practice.
She turned around to retrace their route and slowed to about 15 mph. Then she told her son and daughter they could take off their seat belts to look out the windows for the toy.
And so began three years of legal battles for Atwater and the small town of Lago Vista, Texas.
The Supreme Court will consider whether Atwater, who was arrested, handcuffed and taken to jail for not wearing a seat belt, was subjected to unreasonable arrest.
The decision not only has implications for Atwater and her family (she and her husband have sold their house, moved out of Lago Vista and spent more than $100,000 on the case), many believe it could lead to important groundwork for protecting anyone, particularly minorities, from unreasonable arrests and searches.
“The bitter irony of this story is that Ms. Atwater, as a white woman, is not the typical victim of police abuse,” says William Harrell of the Texas American Civil Liberties Union. “Our concern is what will happen for African-Americans and Latinos if police are allowed to arrest people for infractions that don’t even provide for jail time.”
At least two groups, the ACLU and Americans for Effective Law Enforcement have submitted arguments saying the Supreme Court should use this case to spell out national guidelines for when an arrest is warranted. The ACLU has further argued that no violation that incurs only a fine should be grounds for arrest.
Police Are Concerned
In briefs to the high court, federal and state lawyers counter that police have broad discretion to arrest people when they have probable cause they have violated the law.And law enforcement organizations are concerned a ruling in favor of Atwater could make it difficult for police to do their job.
“Our organization did not take an official stance on the case, but we are concerned about any blanket rule that says you can’t arrest someone for a traffic offense,” says Stephen McSpadden, general counsel for the National Association of Police Organizations. “There may be situations where you may need to arrest somebody. To hold police accountable after making an arrest is a concern.”
‘You Are Going to Jail’
When police officer Bart Turek rounded the corner that day and saw Atwater and her children not wearing seat belts, he immediately pulled near and told her to stop the car. Atwater says Turek then jabbed his finger at her window and yelled, “You are going to jail!”
Turek had stopped Atwater previously, thinking her son had not been wearing a seat belt, but he had been mistaken and Turek had let her go.
“The first experience was uneventful — I didn’t challenge him at all,” says Atwater. “The biggest crime I’ve had in my life was a couple overdue books at the library. I’m a model citizen and this guy was nuts.”
She says Turek continued berating her and eventually Atwater asked him to lower his voice since her children were becoming scared. That, she says, made Turek yell even more. When he asked for her license, Atwater said she didn’t have it because her wallet had been stolen a few days before. He accused her of lying.
Atwater asked if she could take her children to a neighbor’s house two blocks away. She says Turek told her no and that she would have to bring her children with her to jail. Fortunately a neighbor happened by and took Atwater’s children home with her. Turek then took Atwater to jail, where she waited for about an hour in a cell before she was released after paying a $310 bail. She later pleaded no contest to the seat belt violations and paid a $50 fine as well as a $110 towing charge on her vehicle.
Lago Vista City Manager Kelvin Knauf says since he wasn’t at the scene, he can’t comment on Turek’s behavior, but he does believe Turek operated within the law.
“There was no violation of her rights,” he says. “The law clearly says even under a traffic stop you can arrest people.”
Arrests on Minor Grounds
Atwater’s battle has become known as the “Soccer Mom Case” since Atwater, a full-time mother, quite literally fits the bill. But legal experts say the implications of the case extend to all kinds of characters, including any of the estimated 185 million Americans who drive cars and who, someday, could be accused of a traffic violation.
“Police sometimes forget they work for us,” says Charles Chastain, a professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Arkansas. “Part of the policeman’s job is to help people understand the laws are for their own benefit — not to abuse them.”
Susan Herman, an ACLU lawyer who wrote a brief in support of Atwater’s case, points out several other cases have arisen in recent years where officers have arrested and searched people on what she characterizes as “ridiculous” grounds.
In Orlando, Fla., a young man was arrested for riding his bicycle without a bell. In November, a teenage girl was handcuffed and arrested for eating French fries on the Washington, D.C., subway, where eating is prohibited.
Big Wheels in Small Towns
In rural areas, some argue, the risk of encountering an unreasonable police officer is heightened.
“There are many towns where local officers believe they run the place,” says Harrell. “If they’re given this kind of authority, it’s potentially very dangerous.”
Atwater says she hadn’t planned on fighting a battle that would carry such wide resonance. She also never realized it would go on so long.
The ordeal began when a federal trial judge threw out the case, concluding that Atwater was not treated in an “extraordinary manner.” Then a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated the allegations, saying that Atwater’s constitutional rights had been violated.
‘We Are Sick of Lago Vista”
Although Atwater says she has been determined to see the case through, the experience has not been pleasant for her family. Her sister, Kay Nagorski, says Atwater’s neighbors have been hostile to her sister since many think the case could end up increasing their taxes if the city is made to pay. And Atwater says a local newspaper in Lago Vista continually publishes searing articles about her.
“We are sick of Lago Vista,” says Atwater. “The city is so wrong.”
When Lago Vista police Chief Frank Miller was contacted by ABCNEWS.com he declined comment, saying his lawyers had advised him against it. But he did add, “There are two sides to every story.”
On Monday the nine Supreme Court justices will hear both of them, and Atwater’s entire family will be there. “It’s been a big learning experience for all of us,” says Atwater’s sister, Nagorski. “We never realized all of the years and work that go on before a Supreme Court hearing.”