I am sure by now that many of you have read about the soccer mom jailed for a seatbelt violation. This one made it all the way to the United States Supreme Court, and, as it seems almost all of its rulings have been this year, the split was five to four. For those of you who don’t consider who will get to appoint Supreme Court Justices when voting for the President of the United States, I would urge you to reconsider that issue when we do it again in 2004.
The now martyred woman, Gail Atwater, has a six- year-old and a four-year-old and was driving them home in March of 1997. A police officer named Bart Turek, who was driving by, looked through the window and saw that no one was wearing a seat belt, so he pulled Ms. Atwater over. Unfortunately for Ms. Atwater, she did not have her drivers’ license with her, as her purse had been stolen the day before, and Officer Turek, who is clearly not a shining example of law enforcement, put handcuffs on her.
At this point, of course, the Atwater children began to cry. Ms. Atwater was driven to jail and later released on a bail bond totaling $310.00. Ms. Atwater subsequently pleaded guilty to the seat belt charges and paid a fine totaling $50.00. Ms. Atwater and her husband then sued the city and Officer Turek, claiming a violation of constitutional rights in that Officer Turek should have given Ms. Atwater a ticket rather than arresting her. While the Justices, or at least five of them, ended up denying Ms. Atwater’s claim, they are not exactly big fans of Officer Turek. In fact, according to Justice Souter, who wrote the majority opinion, the arrest of Ms. Atwater was a “merely gratuitous humiliation imposed by a police officer who was (at best) exercising extremely poor judgement.” Unfortunately, Justice Souter and four other Justices decided that this bit of stupidity on the part of Officer Turek did not qualify as an actionable unconstitutional act.
There is so much wrong here. For example, the $310.00 bail was $260.00 more than the maximum fine Ms. Atwater could possibly have been ordered to pay for the seat belt ticket. The officer knew Ms. Atwater, as the Court described her as a well-known resident of the town of Lago Vista, and was well aware she was not exactly a flight risk. This is what is known as a “fine-only” misdemeanor. Ms. Atwater was not facing time in jail.
In a nutshell, although all nine Justices indicated that the officer had acted inappropriately, the question came down to whether or not he acted in an unconstitutional fashion. Five Justices concluded that a police officer can arrest, handcuff and jail an individual even for minor traffic violations for which the individual is facing nothing more than a $50.00 fine.
This does not make sense to me. I believe that the best way to motivate this officer, or any other officer for that matter, to follow the law is to make this actionable in some form or another. This clearly was an abuse of discretion by an officer who wanted to give a woman a hard time. Unfortunately, he chose to do so in front of her two young children, which exacerbated the situation. Yes, of course, Ms. Atwater should have been wearing her seat belt and most certainly should have had her children buckled up; however, the job of a police officer is one that bears with it a tremendous responsibility to act appropriately. The officer has the gun, the badge, and the power in a situation such as this. Clearly, most police officers would have acted in a different more appropriate fashion; however, the best if not only way to motivate officers to act appropriately in situations such as this is by permitting Ms. Atwater’s suit to go forward.