Atwater v. City of Lago Vista 532 U.S. 318, 121 S. Ct. 1536, 149 L. Ed.2d 549 (2001)
Atwater was driving around
without a seatbelt (her kids weren't wearing them either). A policeman
noticed this and pulled her over.
Under Texas law, driving
without a seatbelt is a misdemeanor and has a maximum $50 fine (no
possibility of jail time).
A verbal altercation ensued,
and the policeman yelled at Atwater for being a bad mother, and then
Atwater sued the city,
claiming that her arrest for a misdemeanor was a violation of her 4th
Amendment rights because it was an
unreasonable seizure of her person.
The Civil Rights Act of
1871 (42 U.S.C. §1983) allows individuals to sue State and local
government for civil rights violations.
The Trial Court found for Lago
Vista. Atwater appealed.
The Trial Court found that
she had violated the seat belt law, therefore the arrest was reasonable.
The Appellate Court reversed
and found for Atwater.
The Appellate Court found
that arresting someone for a misdemeanor was unreasonable.
The Appellate Court en banc
reversed again and found for Lago Vista.
The US Supreme Court affirmed.
The US Supreme Court looked
to the common law and found that historically, the police can arrest
someone for any crime committed within their presence, even if it is only
However, there are
counter-examples in the case law.
argued that there should be a balancing test to determine whether the
arrest was reasonable, but the Court found that the police were
authorized (though not required) to make a custodial arrest without
balancing costs and benefits or determining whether Atwater's arrest was
argued that the police should not be able to arrest someone for crimes
that do not carry a jail sentence, but the Court found that it would be
unreasonable to expect the police to know what crime the person will
eventually be charged with. They are not district attorneys and do not
In a dissent it was argued
that an arrest for a fine-only misdemeanor was not reasonable because
sending someone to jail for up to 48 hours (the time necessary to get him
or her before a magistrate to be released) was too great an intrusion upon
the personal liberty interests of one who had committed such a relatively
minor offense as would merit only a fine as punishment.
In addition, the dissent
worried that allowing the arresting officer sole discretion to determine
if the arrest was 'reasonable' put too much power in their hands and
carried the potential for abuse.
Basically, in this case the
Court refused to draw any bright line rules and said that it is up to the
police officer at the time to determine the best course of action based on
the specific facts on the ground. To limit the police's abilities with
bright line rules would make it difficult for them to do their jobs and
could result in dangerous situations.
The Court agreed that in
this particular case, the policeman was being a jerk, but they didn't
want to set a precedent based on this one instance.
The court noted that cases
like this are very unusual and it takes a lot of effort to file an
arrest report, so it was unlikely to be abused.
Btw, because a search
incident to a lawful arrest (SILA) is
allowed whenever someone is arrested, this ruling gave the police
significantly enhanced search powers.