- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 6, 2000

How far can the state go when it comes to making us do things "for our own good"? The outcome of a pending Supreme Court case will give us an answer. Gail Atwater of Lago Vista, Texas, was arrested, handcuffed and carted off to jail for not wearing her seat belt.
In Texas, it is legally permissible for police to treat motorists like criminals merely for committing a minor traffic infraction. The law gives police authority to perform "custodial arrests" for routine traffic violations. The infraction need not involve public safety. It is enough merely to run afoul of someone else's idea of what's "for your own good." No one including the arresting officer even alleges that Mrs. Atwater did anything to endanger anyone else, or operated her vehicle in an unsafe manner. She simply decided not to (or forgot to) buckle up. That may or may not have been wise, but the arrest and incarceration is grotesquely excessive.
After she got out of jail, Mrs. Atwater sued the city of Lago Vista on the grounds that the treatment she experienced amounted to a violation of her constitutionally protected right against unreasonable arrest which by any sane standard is certainly an accurate charge. The Supreme Court, in the case of Atwater vs. Lago Vista, will now consider whether such arrests, under such trivial circumstances, are indeed constitutional. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had already found the arrest and incarceration of Mrs. Atwater "reasonable" because the arresting officer "had reason to believe she violated the law" and "because the arrest was not conducted in an extraordinary manner."
A rereading of that last sentence will indicate what kind of mentality is possessed by the robed rulers who sit on the 5th Circuit. According to these learned jurists, it is reasonable to dragoon a citizen a woman with her children in the car in handcuffs, to jail, for no greater offense against society than her failure to "buckle up for safety." It is not extraordinary to assault a peaceable citizen (and let's be honest and call it by its proper name) for an "offense" that doesn't even carry with it the possibility of jail time upon conviction. Arrested, handcuffed and carted to jail for an action that is punishable, at most, by a civil fine.
One hopes the Supreme Court will repudiate the tactics employed by the state of Texas. From anti-smoking statutes to "hate crimes" that punish thought, America is becoming a place where police involvement in private behavior is becoming a routine and accepted fact of life. "You've got the perfect case," Justice Sandra Day O'Connor told Mrs. Atwater's attorney. Now let's see if the justices render the perfect (and appropriate) judgment.

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