Court allows jail time for minor offenses

Supreme Court rules police can arrest a mother for not making kids wear seatbelts.

Buckle up, if you want to stay out of jail. And you'd better not litter, either, or it's off to the slammer.

That is the gist of an important ruling announced yesterday by the US Supreme Court that gives a green light to police officers nationwide to arrest and jail people even for the most minor infractions.

The decision upholds the arrest of a Texas mother who was handcuffed and taken to jail in front of her two young children because they were not wearing seatbelts.

Civil libertarians see the decision as a major setback to Fourth Amendment protections.

In a second important ruling, the nation's highest court made it significantly more difficult for minorities and other groups to win discrimination lawsuits in federal court based on broad claims of disparate treatment.

That decision relates to a challenge of Alabama's English-only driving-license tests by Spanish-speaking residents who complained that the language restrictions were a form of discrimination based on national origin.

A sharply divided court ruled that private individuals are not empowered to enforce, via private lawsuits, disparate-impact regulations under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In the Texas seatbelt case, the court split 5 to 4 over whether Bart Turek, a police officer with the Lago Vista police department, violated the constitutional guarantee against unreasonable searches and seizures when he arrested Gail Atwater in March 1997.

Driving without fastening a seatbelt is punishable under state law by a $50 fine - but provides for no jail sentence.

No heavy handed action

But the high court ruled that Officer Turek acted reasonably when he placed Mrs. Atwater under arrest and took her to jail. "If an officer has probable cause to believe that an individual has committed even a very minor criminal offense in his presence, he may, without violating the Fourth Amendment, arrest the offender," writes Justice David Souter in the majority opinion.

"Atwater's arrest was surely humiliating, but it was no more harmful to her privacy or physical interests than the normal custodial arrest," Justice Souter writes. "The arrest and booking were inconvenient and embarrassing to Atwater, but not so extraordinary as to violate the Fourth Amendment."

Souter was joined by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, and Clarence Thomas.

In a sharply worded dissent, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said the police officer's actions were anything but reasonable. "There is no question that Officer Turek's actions severely infringed Atwater's liberty and privacy," she writes. "Turek was loud and accusatory from the moment he approached Atwater's car. Atwater's young children were terrified and hysterical."

Justice O'Connor's dissent was joined by Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen Breyer.

At issue in the case was whether the officer should have simply written Atwater a summons and allowed her to contest the ticket in court or pay it, or whether the officer attempted to mete out his own form of justice by subjecting the mother to the humiliation of being handcuffed and jailed for a relatively minor infraction.

Don't mint new rules

The police department argued that the officer acted properly because he saw Atwater and her children driving without their seat belts fastened and had once before stopped her for the same offense.

Justice Souter writing for the majority said that Atwater was asking the court to "mint a new rule of constitutional law" that would permit judges to strike a balance between individual and societal interests on a case by case basis.

"If we were to derive a rule exclusively to address the uncontested facts of this case, Atwater might well prevail," Souter writes. "In her case, the physical incidents of arrest were merely gratuitous humiliations imposed

by a police officer who was (at best) exercising extremely poor judgment."

But Souter concluded that a case-by-case approach would not lend itself to consistent constitutional review.

O'Connor disagreed. "The per se rule that the court creates has potentially serious consequences for the everyday lives of Americans," she says. "The majority gives officers unfettered discretion to choose that course without articulating a single reason why such action is appropriate."

"Such action carries with it grave potential for abuse," she writes. "As the recent debate over racial profiling 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."

Origin of driver-license case

Deciding the Alabama civil rights case, the court also divided 5 to 4, but with O'Connor in the majority and Souter in the minority.

The case, Alexander v. Sandoval, stems from a class-action lawsuit filed by Martha Sandoval, a permanent US resident from Mexico challenging Alabama's English-only driving-license test as an illegal form of discrimination based on her national origin.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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