- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 26, 2001

Conservatives usually have a healthy distrust of the state, so it was surprising (and depressing) to learn of the conservative-dominated Supreme Courts decision this week affirming the authority of police to arrest and cart off to jail people who have committed minor, non-criminal traffic offenses such as failing to buckle-up while operating a motor vehicle.

The case at issue Atwater vs. Lago Vista revolved around an incident that occurred back in 1997, when Gail Atwater, a soccer mom with three young children, was stopped by a traffic cop because her kids weren´t buckled-up, in violation of the local seatbelt ordinance. Instead of merely issuing Mrs. Atwater a ticket and sending her on her way, the officer arrested and handcuffed the woman in front of her children and took her in his squad car to the county lock-up. She was released after posting bond and paying the $50 fine for the seatbelt violation.

Understandably outraged by treatment she viewed as excessive, Mrs. Atwater took the matter to court, arguing that her arrest constituted an unreasonable search and seizure, in violation of Fourth Amendment protections. Not so understandably, a majority of the Supreme Court disagreed, taking the hard-to-swallow position that police are within their lawful authority to arrest and waylay citizens who may have done no more than commit a minor infraction punishable, at most, by a fine.

"The arrest and booking were inconvenient to Atwater," wrote Justice David H. Souter in his majority opinion, "but not so extraordinary as to violate the Fourth Amendment." Concurring in the majority ruling were Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Clarence Thomas, and Antonin Scalia.

"Inconvenience" is not the only issue. As a result of the court´s ruling, police will have the ability, in effect, to conduct virtually at-will searches of anyone, not just motorists and their vehicles because under the law, once a person is placed under arrest, police have greatly expanded authority to conduct searches of persons and possessions (such as vehicles).

Prior to the Supreme Court´s ruling, it was not lawful to conduct a search of either a motorist or his vehicle merely on the basis of a non-criminal traffic violation. A warrant was required and it had to be based upon probable cause. Not anymore.

The court´s ruling "demonstrates all too clearly that that a minor traffic infraction may serve as an excuse for stopping and harassing an individual," wrote Justice Sandra Day O´Connor in her strongly worded dissenting opinion. "After today, the arsenal available to any officer extends to full arrest and the searches permissible to that arrest," she continued. That a majority of the Supreme Court can justify such an outrageous assault upon basic civil liberties is a chilling thing to contemplate.

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