The slim majority, led by a liberal who joined four conservatives, said such arrests without warrants did not violate the Constitution.
The case is an important one for determining how police routinely interact with the American public. At issue is how much power police are able to wield in tens of thousands of encounters with the public yearly, not just in traffic stops.
The facts in the Texas case that brought Tuesday's decision are simple. In Lago Vista, a police officer handcuffed a driver who was not wearing a seat belt, and took her to jail.
However, the case is more complicated than it seems at first glance.
Police officer Bart Turek stopped Gail Atwater in 1997 when he saw that she and her two children, ages 6 and 4, were not wearing seat belts.
The officer later told the courts that it was the second time in weeks he had stopped Atwater for the same traffic violation. This time, he told her he was charging her with failing to buckle up, driving without a license and failing to provide proof of insurance.
Atwater was handcuffed in front of her crying children, taken to jail and booked. She was later released on bond. The woman eventually pleaded guilty to the seat belt charge and paid a $50 fine. The other charges were dropped, as is usual when defendants produce a valid license and insurance card.
Atwater and her husband then sued Lago Vista and the officer, claiming her Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures was violated.
A federal judge ruled summarily for Lago Vista and Turek. A divided U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit affirmed.
The Supreme Court took the case to determine whether such an arrest is a possible constitutional violation, and whether Atwater has the right to a civil trial on that basis. The justices heard argument in December.
Tuesday, liberal Justice David Souter found himself in the unusual position of speaking for a narrow majority made up mostly of the court's conservative members. The majority upheld the lower court's decision.
"Atwater's arrest was surely 'humiliating,' as she says in her brief, but it was no more 'harmful to … privacy or … physical interests' than the normal custodial arrest," Souter said.
"… The arrest and booking were inconvenient and embarrassing to Atwater," he added later, "but not so extraordinary as to violate the Fourth Amendment" and its guarantees of due process.
Moderate conservative Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, joined by the court's remaining three liberals, dissented.
O'Connor cited "the recent debate over racial profiling," which she said "demonstrates all too clearly, a relatively minor traffic infraction may often serve as an excuse for stopping and harassing an individual. After today, the arsenal available to any officer extends to a full arrest and the searches permissible concomitant to that arrest."
The justice said it was not up to the Supreme Court to analyze an officer's motives to determine the "reasonableness" of a traffic stop. "But it is precisely because these motivations are beyond our purview," she said, "that we must vigilantly ensure that officers' post-stop actions, which are properly within our reach, comport with the Fourth Amendment's guarantee of reasonableness."
(No. 99-1408, Atwater vs. Lago Vista et al)
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