Atwater v. City of Lago Vista
In Atwater v. City of Lago Vista, 532 U.S. 318 (2001), the plaintiff brought a civil rights action against her local police and city under 42 United States Code section 1983.
She was arrested, handcuffed, and taken to jail for failing to wear her own seat belt and for failing to fasten her children's seat belts.
The Supreme Court held:
"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." (Id at p. 121 S.Ct. at p. 1557.)
It concluded that the arrest satisfied constitutional requirements because there was no dispute that the arresting officer had probable cause to believe that the plaintiff had committed a crime in his presence.
She admitted that neither she nor her children were wearing seat belts as required by Texas statute. The arresting officer was authorized, but not required, under Texas law to make a custodial arrest. (Ibid.)
The Atwater court also found the arrest was not made in an "'extraordinary manner, unusually harmful to her privacy or . . . physical interests.' Whren v. United States, 517 U.S., at 818, 116 S.Ct. 1769. As our citations in Whren make clear, the question whether a search or seizure is 'extraordinary' turns, above all else, on the manner in which the search or seizure is executed." (Atwater v. City of Lago Vista, supra, 532 U.S. at p. 121 S.Ct. at pp. 1557-1558.)
The United States Supreme Court profoundly limited Fourth Amendment restrictions on the seizure of persons suspected of having committed offenses punishable by only a fine.
In that decision, a police officer arrested the plaintiff for violating a Texas statute that required a front seat vehicle passenger both to wear a seatbelt and secure small children riding in the front seat.
Texas law classifies these violations as misdemeanors, punishable by only a fine.
It also authorizes police officers to arrest persons who violate the statute.
The plaintiff in Atwater filed a civil rights action, alleging that her arrest for a fine-only offense violated her Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable seizure.
The Supreme Court rejected the claim.
"We confirm today what our prior cases have intimated: the standard of probable cause 'applies to all arrests, without the need to "balance" the interests and circumstances involved in particular situations.'
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." (Atwater, supra, 532 U.S. at p. 121 S. Ct. at p. 1557.)
The Supreme Court held that the Fourth Amendment does not forbid a warrantless arrest for a minor criminal offense, such as a misdemeanor violation punishable only by a fine.
In Atwater, Texas law authorized the arrest of the defendant for a misdemeanor seatbelt violation but permitted a citation in lieu of arrest. The Supreme Court confirmed that the standard of probable cause "applie[s] to all arrests, without the need to balance' the interests and circumstances involved in particular situations." (Atwater at 354.)
Justice Souter analyzed the historical basis of Mr. and Mrs. Atwater's claim that her arrest violated the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
He concluded that historically it is unclear that the common law at the time of the adoption of the United States Constitution did not allow for warrantless arrests of what we now call minor misdemeanors.
After reaching that conclusion, he then undertook the balancing test referred to above and concluded that the interests of minor misdemeanor defendants who are arrested do not outweigh the interests of state and local governments in arresting them.
He also pointed out that it is not easy to fashion an understandable rule that would allow minor misdemeanor arrests in some situations but not others.
Finally, he concluded that arrests for minor offenses are constitutional.
Indeed the opinion's holding is found in the following sentence:
"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." 532 U.S. at 354, 121 S. Ct. at 1557, 149 L. Ed. 2d at 577.
In Atwater v. City of Largo Vista, the Court held that it is constitutionally permissible to take a defendant into custody after a traffic infraction.
The Supreme Court upheld the custodial arrest involving a misdemeanor seatbelt violation under Texas law that carried a punishment of $ 50.00 and not jail time.
The Court upheld the custodial arrest and adopted a bright line rule that if a police office has probable cause to believe that a individual has committed even a minor offense that carries no jail time, the officer may still make a "custodial arrest" (see also, Virginia v. Moore, 553 U.S. 164, 128 S.Ct 1598, 170 L. Ed. 2d 559).