Today in 2001: SCOTUS sanctions police arrests over any minor criminal offenses

April 24, 2015

Today in Legal HistoryMedia attention continues to focus on abuse of police authority as more alleged instances of this behavior dot the national landscape.

With this increased attention on police activity, one may believe that a hypothetical arrest of an individual for a minor offense – even one as minor as jaywalking – would only add to this abuse of power narrative.

However, such an arrest would be perfectly keeping with constitutional precedent set by the Supreme Court 14 years ago today, when it decided Atwater v. Lago Vista on April 24, 2001.

The facts of the case begin in March 1997, when Gail Atwater’s 3-year-old son lost his suction-operated plastic toy bat from the window of her car in the small town of Lago Vista, Texas.  Atwater turned the car around to retrace their route, slowing to about 15 mph.  She told her son and 5-year-old daughter that they could take off their seat belts to look for the toy out the windows.  Texas law requires front-seat passengers to wear seatbelts if the car is equipped with them.

Lago Vista police officer Bart Turek “observed the seatbelt violations and pulled Atwater over.”   According to Atwater’s complaint, as Turek approached the car, he yelled “something to the effect of ‘[w]e’ve met before’ and ‘[y]ou’re going to jail.’”  After calling for backup, he asked to see Atwater’s driver’s license and insurance information, which she was unable to provide because “her purse had been stolen the day before.”  Incredulous, Turek claimed to have “heard that story two-hundred times.”

Atwater then asked to take her upset and crying children to a nearby friend’s house, to which Turek replied that she wasn’t “going anywhere” (the friend learned what was going on and arrived to take care of the kids soon thereafter).  Atwater was then handcuffed, placed into Turek’s squad car, and driven to the local police station, where the booking officers “had her remove her shoes, jewelry, and eyeglasses, and empty her pockets.”  Atwater’s mug shot was taken, and she was then placed alone in a jail cell for an hour before “being taken before a magistrate and released on $310 bond.”

Atwater was charged with driving without her seatbelt, failing to secure her children in seatbelts, driving without a license, and failing to provide proof of insurance.  She pleaded no contest to the misdemeanor seat belt offenses and the other charges were dismissed.

Atwater and her husband filed a § 1983 suit against the City of Lago Vista and the Chief of Police for violating Atwater’s Fourth Amendment right to be “free from unreasonable seizure” by arresting her over a seatbelt violation, for which the maximum penalty was only a fine.

Atwater lost to the city’s summary judgment motion at the trial court, which was reversed on appeal.  En banc, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal vacated the earlier appeals ruling and affirmed the trial court, finding that the arrest was not unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment since it was undisputed that Turek had probable cause that a criminal offense, albeit a minor one, had been committed, and that the Fourth Amendment allows law enforcement to effect arrests in such circumstances.

The Supreme Court agreed to review the case, and in a 5-4 ruling, affirmed the en banc court of appeals, finding that “the probable-cause standard applies to all arrests, without the need to balance the interests and circumstances involved in particular situations,” and that “[a]n officer may arrest an individual without violating the Fourth Amendment if there is probable cause to believe that the offender has committed even a very minor criminal offense in the officer’s presence.”

The dissent, written by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and joined by Justices Stevens, Ginsburg, and Breyer, instead argued that custodial arrests are not necessarily reasonable in every circumstance.  The dissent proposed that arresting officers should be required to articulate facts that demonstrate why the arrest was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment when the criminal violation is minor.

Although such a proposed rule may be quite appealing to citizens not looking to be arrested for something minor like jaywalking, the fact remains that this is not the path chosen by the Court, and such an arrest remains a very real – and legally sanctioned – possibility.