U.S. Supreme Court authorizes seat belt arrest


Clarifying the extent of police power in roadside stops, the U.S. Supreme Court held that officers can arrest and handcuff people even for minor offenses punishable by a fine.

The justices ruled against a driver who was arrested and handcuffed for failing to wear a seat belt. Such arrests do not violate the constitutional protection against unreasonable search, they declared Monday in a 5-4 ruling that could affect anyone who drives a car.

The justices said such an arrest does not violate the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable seizures.

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

The Fourth Amendment protects “the right of the people to be secure … against unreasonable searches and seizures.” A lower court had ruled that Gail Atwater could not sue over her arrest because the officer did not violate her constitutional rights.

Atwater was driving her two children home from soccer practice in 1997 when she was stopped by a police officer who had noticed the three were not wearing seat belts.

Texas law allows police to make arrests for routine traffic violations, except for speeding. The officer arrested Atwater, handcuffed her, and took her to the city police station. A friend looked after her children and her pickup truck was towed away.

Atwater was released after posting bond and she later pleaded no contest to the seat belt offense and paid the maximum US$50 fine.

Atwater and her husband, Michael Haas, sued the city and the police officer, saying the arrest violated her constitutional rights.

“The arrest and booking were inconvenient to Atwater, but not so extraordinary as to violate the Fourth Amendment,” Supreme Court Justice David H. Souter wrote for the majority.