Arresting Iffy Arrests

Arresting and jailing someone for violating a law requiring buckled seat belts probably seems excessive. But the US Supreme Court decided this week that such an arrest doesn't violate the Constitution's guarantee against unreasonable search and seizure.

A five-justice majority argued that the arresting officer responded to a clear offense - a Texas mother, with two children, operating a vehicle without fastened seat belts. Taking her to jail instead of just issuing a citation may have been an act of extremely poor judgment, the court said, but it didn't offend the Constitution.

To make the Texas cop's excesses a constitutional violation would have opened a wide door to litigation against police departments, and the court was loath to see that happen.

While the constitutional question is now settled, many citizens are likely to be left unsettled by this case. They have plenty of cause to wonder whether their states' laws allow arrests for such minor offenses as unfastened seat belts or other misdemeanors punishable by a simple fine.

In fact, many states do give the police that discretion, though it's probably rarely exercised. The public, generally, has little awareness of what it may be subject to.

The Supreme Court ruling should be a prod for legislatures to review their criminal statutes with an eye to clarifying things. If the laws make drivers subject to arrest for minor offenses, the laws ought to be changed. Police departments, too, should make known their policies on when arrests can be expected for minor offenses.

While the kind of police action at issue in the Texas case may not have been of constitutional gravity, it's nonetheless of grave concern to any citizen who may experience it.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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