Granted I don't speed anymore, but handcuffs hurt.
April 24, 2001 2:59 PM   Subscribe

Granted I don't speed anymore, but handcuffs hurt. Is it just me? But the Supreme court, it seems, cares nothing for the citizenry of this country. Who's hoops are they jumping through, dragging us along with our sore handcuffed wrists?
posted by crasspastor (37 comments total)
The Supreme Court is supposed to rule on the law, not impose it. If you have a problem with the law, take it up with the legislative branch.
posted by aaron at 3:04 PM on April 24, 2001

They used to step in when legislation and citizen initiative was deemed unconstitutional.

What's stopping them from ruling in citizen's favor now?
posted by crasspastor at 3:12 PM on April 24, 2001

I dunno, crasspastor... I'm personally split on this: is poor judgement unconstitutional? No. Should police officers be able to bully people for minor infractions of the law? Definately not... Maybe a better case will come along that will allow the court to better articulate some fundemental issue.
posted by silusGROK at 3:18 PM on April 24, 2001

what's even worse is when schools decide to arrest 12 year old kids who get into fights when no real injury is sustained. me bitter? a little, yeah. there are all kinds of discrepencies involving the interpretation of constitutional rights, and whoever has the most power in any given situation wins. democracy is one of those idealist beliefs that only works for the empowered.
posted by natasharama at 3:18 PM on April 24, 2001

Crasspastor: It's not about whether they're ruling "in favor of the citizens," whatever that means to adherents of a given ideology. It's about ruling whether given laws and actions are constitutionally allowable or not. How nice or fair those laws and actions might be is irrelevant.
posted by aaron at 3:25 PM on April 24, 2001

Aaron: The operative word in your statement is "supposed." After reading a disquieting number of SCt opinions, it seems to me that the distinction between interpreting the law and making the law( "impose" seems too much like the executive branch's arena) is a distinction without a difference, despite the constant appeals to legislative sanctity found in the Supreme's opinions.

On that note, even the most politically conservative members of the Court (i.e. , Scalia, Thomas, and Rhenquist) have been more than willing to ignore state and federal legislative intent to further their individual ideological agendum (e.g. , overturning the New Jersey state law regarding homosexuality and the Boy Scouts, the _Lopez_ decision regarding federal safe school legislation and the reams of data that Congress used to pass the legislation, etc. etc.). Strangely enough, these same members seem to overlook their inconsistencies when railing against judicial activism and the corruption of legislative intent.

They're full of shit. I've got to get back to the books...
posted by estopped at 3:27 PM on April 24, 2001

It'd be nice if they'd err on the side of "not enough information yet" to rule, rather than give any ol' officer of the law who's having a bad day the right to inflict pain and embarrassment on ordinary citizens before they themselves have enough information.

Who will be the force-arbiter of the police on the moment by moment basis required for a free, just society?
posted by crasspastor at 3:28 PM on April 24, 2001

I'm split on this too. While I'd hate to get dragged to jail for a traffic offense, I have little sympathy for the irresponsible woman tooling around with kids unbelted in the car. Perhaps the officer in the incident had seen too many unbelted kids killed or maimed in what should have been minor accidents.
posted by Tubes at 3:31 PM on April 24, 2001

This is great. What next? Police arresting people with overdue library books?
posted by Doug at 3:36 PM on April 24, 2001

The situations (not using seat belts etc) are perhaps exaggerated in order to make a point. The point is (Aaron please note) legislation is made and when it is contested, it may as in this case end up in the Supreme Court to see if in fact the law is with or without judicial merit...If the court turns it down, then the court is telling local and state makers that they have overstepped their bounds.
What is noteworthy is that the court did not break into the expected 5-4 (liberal-conservative) but mixed it up.
Also of note: there will soon be one or possibly two replacement jurors at the Supremes and they will be conservative.
Ps: the Supreme Court once ruled that separate but equal education was legal and fair....
posted by Postroad at 3:45 PM on April 24, 2001

You all may want to file this in the looney bin category. But something that just occurred to me was what this ruling lubes the pipes of injustice for:

Protests. All people exercising their right of free speech are loitering in the eyes of the law. One can now be arrested for loitering.

With the simmering furor over the events of this past 6 months, they've taken yet another step towards silencing what perhaps could get out of hand for them, were there to be a massive show of disenfranchisement for our corrupt system.
posted by crasspastor at 3:46 PM on April 24, 2001

The problem is that is almost impossible to drive without breaking some traffic law. That means, whatever the legal reasoning, we're granting cops arbritrary powers to arrest drivers.
posted by rdr at 4:05 PM on April 24, 2001

The chilling part of all this is that a minor infraction can now be used to justify what would previously be considered unreasonable search and seizure.

Now, when an officer wants to search your car, she need only notice a seatbelt violation (or a broken taillight?) to have grounds for arrest, which is itself grounds for search and seizure.

Better get those six month-old registration stickers in your windshield, all you pot-smoking deviants.
posted by dfowler at 4:09 PM on April 24, 2001

Mandatory seatbelt laws anger me. I always wear a seatbelt anyway, but I would violate that law in a heartbeat if I was inclined to. If people are stupid enough to let them pass such laws, I don't see anything weird about the police enforcing the stupid law. Don't want to go to jail for violations of common sense? Get the law repealed. What next? You can't go to bed until the government see that you have brushed your teeth? You can't eat your dinner until your hands are clean to the government's satisfaction?
posted by thirteen at 4:15 PM on April 24, 2001

It's always weird to see conservative members of the court support "smaller government" things like this.
posted by mathowie at 4:25 PM on April 24, 2001

I did not see Doug's "What next?" post before I posted my own. We are truly brothers under the skin.
posted by thirteen at 4:29 PM on April 24, 2001

I got a kick out of this part of the article.

"The court said there is no need for "the development of a new and distinct body of constitutional law" because there has been no "epidemic of unnecessary minor-offense arrests."

I guess they haven't heard about the half million or so people behind bars on drug possession charges.
posted by keithl at 4:40 PM on April 24, 2001

I guess they haven't heard about the half million or so people behind bars on drug possession charges.

that assumes that drug possession is a minor offence. which in the eyes of the law, it is not, no matter what your personal opinion may be.
posted by fuzzygeek at 4:54 PM on April 24, 2001

Aaron: If the court decides things just based upon the Constitution, how to explain the most recent racial redistricting decision? Before it was awful, awful, just awful, and now it's suddenly OK? Want to guess why? Republicans are now in favor of racial redistricting, because the whole Redistricting as Voting Tide Detergent (gets white districts whiter, districts of color more colorful) thing has worked in their favor. Really. You hear them argue in favor of it now in Congress, Democrats in favor of so-called inclusive districts. It's a trading places thing, and terribly amusing to read about/watch.

In the meantime, this doesn't have jack to do with the actual Constitution, except in that the Constitution was very vague and open to interpretation for the most part, which Scalia denies, denies, denies. Dems do nothing to hide that they are being completely full of it here. Republicans cloak their cynicism in "principle?" Again?
posted by raysmj at 5:11 PM on April 24, 2001

Also please note aaron that, yes, this case was a little more complicated. And I, honestly, cannot say what I would have done if I were in the same shoes as the justices, except if I were Thomas, in which case I know what I would have done -- vote the same way as Scalia. That Souter went for this proves maybe that some close watchers of the court are right in say that he's not predictably liberal, but seriously independent-minded. But I think it's clear the Constitution was very open to interpretation here.
posted by raysmj at 5:27 PM on April 24, 2001

So basically, if I'm out driving around at 5 miles over the speed limit, the officer who pulls me over can arrest me for speeding instead of just giving me a ticket. I can then be held for up to 48 hours & possibly have my car searched because I've been arrested.

I'm almost speechless.

So does the ruling by SCOTUS that there was "no particular evidence that those who framed and ratified the Fourth Amendment sought to limit peace officers warrantless misdemeanor arrest authority to instances of actual breach of the peace" mean that getting a ticket instead of handcuffs has always just been a courtesy to us as citizens?

I have a hard time believing that, but maybe so. It seems a bit more complicated matter than working through the legislative branch to change the law, though, since the problem isn't the law itself (the seatbelt law in this case), but the particular enforcement of it by an individual police officer. I'm with crasspastor above — if the police can basically arrest at whim based on anotherwise uneventful traffic stop, how far away are we really from a police state?
posted by raku at 5:39 PM on April 24, 2001

Tubes, the poster with no sympathy for the mother in this case for what he alleged was her irresponsibility needs to read this, from a wire report on Yahoo:

Atwater was driving her two children home from soccer practice when a prized toy - her son's rubber model of a bat - flew onto the roadside of Dawn Drive.

The child screamed for her to go back and look, Atwater said.

Atwater said she allowed her children to unbuckle their seat belts, as she did, so all could crane their necks while she slowly retraced their path.

There was no other traffic on the road, she said, until Turek's cruiser appeared.

Turek handcuffed Atwater's wrists behind her back and placed her in a police cruiser. A friend came to pick up Atwater's children while she was taken to a police station. There, police took her mug shot and placed alone in a cell until she posted $310 in bail.

posted by raysmj at 6:42 PM on April 24, 2001

Another good reason to oppose prison rape.
posted by norm at 7:20 PM on April 24, 2001

Who's hoops are they jumping through, dragging us along with our sore handcuffed wrists?

The whole world got to see whose hoops they jump through last December.
posted by DiplomaticImmunity at 7:35 PM on April 24, 2001

Can someone make sure that the police keep careful watch of the Supreme Court justices' cars to and from DC, just in case they happen to nudge a few miles over the speed limit?
posted by holgate at 1:44 AM on April 25, 2001

Actually, in Texas, where this case arose, you cannot be arrested for speeding.
posted by CRS at 6:19 AM on April 25, 2001

It looks to me like now you can be arrested for speeding, or failing to signal, or not wearing a seatbelt, or anything. I guess this will save police the trouble of planting evidence and answering icky questions about racial profiling; they can just say that they weren't wearing their seatbelts.
posted by donkeymon at 7:58 AM on April 25, 2001

One time I was speeding on my drive home from Charlotte to DC and I got pulled over by this Drug Interdiction Task Force because I was driving a van. Of course they wanted to search my car and were just out fishing for probable cause. They asked if they could search my car and I actually let them because I was clean, I had the time, and I knew hundreds of other speeders would go free while they were messing around in the back of my van, which was loaded with more trash than I could possibly describe. But if I had said no they would not have been able to search my van. Now if this happened to me and I said no, they would have arrested me for speeding just so they could search my van. What a load of crap.
posted by donkeymon at 8:04 AM on April 25, 2001

Justice O'Connor, who normally sides with the conservative majority, issued a scathing dissent in this case. (The link is to the court's opinion; the dissent is about three-quarters of the way down.) The facts of the case (summarized in the opinion) are pretty outrageous.

By now, I shouldn't be able to be surprised by what the Supremes come down with, but this decision amazes me. The majority relies, in part, on the kind of treatment that Atwater was subjected to, not being a pervasive problem. This decision will go a long way towards making out-of-control officers a larger problem. Someone's going to end up being detained for 48 hours for a similar problem, and then when the case comes back up to the court, it will be interesting to see how they dance around it.
posted by anapestic at 8:25 AM on April 25, 2001

Wow: they're citing the John Wilkes trial, along with Blackstone and common law going back to 1631:

The point is that the statutes riddle Atwater's supposed common-law rule with enough exceptions to unsettle any contention that the law of the mother country would have left the Fourth Amendment's Framers of a view that it would necessarily have been unreasonable to arrest without warrant for a misdemeanor unaccompanied by real or threatened violence.

In short, they're judging the "intent" of the Fourth Amendment in the context of English common law. My gob is somewhat smacked.
posted by holgate at 8:49 AM on April 25, 2001

The arrest of the woman hinged on the fact that in Texas (at that time, I don't know about now), not wearing a seat belt (and possibly other traffic offenses; I don't know) was a criminal violation. I don't know about most states, but in Washington state, this particular scenario could not happen.

- In WA, most traffic offenses are civil infractions; you cannot be arrested for them. This includes speeding and not wearing a seat belt. The criminal offenses are things like DUI or reckless driving. Ordinary moving violations and I believe all equipment violations (headlight out, etc) are all infractions.

- However, for a criminal offense committed in an officer's presence, you can be arrested (because that satisfies probable cause). Most offenses are at the officer's discretion; some are mandatory (felonies, domestic violence, etc). So, if in your state not wearing a seat belt is a criminal offense, yes, you can go to jail for it if an officer sees it.

- In WA, no seat belt is not a primary stop criteria (the police cannot pull you over if you're not wearing a seat belt). Note, though, that improperly secured children under 10 is a primary stop (so if an infant is riding on somebody's lap instead of in a child seat, you can be pulled over and ticketed for that, but you still won't go to jail for it). Also, the driver gets the ticket for anybody under 16; once you're 16, you can get seat belt tickets (since you're eligible for a license, you're eligible for a ticket).

From The dissent said that arresting an individual gives police the authority to search body and possessions. If the person is in a car, police can search the vehicle and its contents along with any passengers.

- If you are arrested while driving (for, say, DUI), the police cannot search the entire car. The limit is, basically, the passenger compartment, not including anything that is locked (the glove compartment, the trunk, luggage, whatever). This is for a search incident to arrest; if they get a warrant, that's a different story.

- In WA, passengers cannot be searched incident to arrest of the driver. They can be searched if they are arrested for an offense they have committed.

Finally, if you're curious as to what a traffic stop looks like from the other end, call up your local police department and request a "ride along." You get to sit in the front seat of the patrol car and ride around and see what's going on. You have an officer right there that you can quiz if you want. It might not change your opinions, but you'll have a little more real information to work with. A Friday or Saturday evening is the busiest time, but any afternoon or early evening time will involve some traffic stops.
posted by doorsnake at 11:03 AM on April 25, 2001

raysmj - thanks for the details on the incident. I was obviously using only the information from the first article to generate my lack of sympathy. The new information changes the picture a bit, but I still wonder what else happened to provoke the officer into cuffing & arresting her.

After backing up along the roadway (illegal in some places) to look for a rubber toy (dumb) did she then get indignant and mouth off when the officer pointed out the seatbelt violations?

And who needs to take off their seatbelt to back up, anyway? Who needs their KIDS to take off their seatbelts to drive in reverse? Did she back up 10 feet, or did she swerve tentatively backwards along the shoulder like a complete ninny for 2 miles looking for a $2 rubber bat?

The court opinion cited above states "Atwater was charged with driving without her seatbelt fastened, failing to secure her children in seatbelts, driving without a license, and failing to provide proof of insurance."

It also states that she and the officer had had an encounter once before. What was her demeanor in that incident?

Also from the court opinion: "Texas law expressly authorizes '[a]ny peace officer [to] arrest without warrant a person found committing a violation' of these seatbelt laws ... although it permits police to issue citations in lieu of arrest"

Perhaps Texas law is wrong, but it seems the officer was within his rights to arrest her.
posted by Tubes at 11:16 AM on April 25, 2001

who needs to take off their seatbelt to back up, anyway?

Lots of people: that's why it's the one occasion, under British law, that a driver's allowed to remove the seatbelt.

It also states that she and the officer had had an encounter once before. What was her demeanor in that incident?

Hard to tell "demeanour": but the officer stopped her on suspicion that one of the kids, sitting on the armrest, wasn't buckled in. He was. Second time round, the officer had a score to settle: I really do hope that he's sent to Coventry by his neighbours, the malicious pig-fucker.

(Note also, as Justice O'Connor did, that the cop didn't belt up the handcuffed Atwater while driving her to the slammer, and yet didn't arrest himself.)
posted by holgate at 11:54 AM on April 25, 2001

Doorsnake: Thanks for the summary. It seems this may be more a matter of changing local laws than I thought, if it varies that much from state to state. And I have no doubt that these days a routine traffic stop isn't a low-risk or low-stress event for police officers, which is what you seemed to imply in your final paragraph.

I'm not approaching this from the idea that all police are thugs, but from the point of view that this decision seems to leave the ultimate determination of my 4th amendment rights up to the officer who pulls me over, if local or state law doesn't expressly prohibit arrest/search for a minor offense. I wonder how many states have laws like Washington's that define what is and isn't a primary stop? I have to confess ignorance on that point.
posted by raku at 12:46 PM on April 25, 2001

raku sez: these days a routine traffic stop isn't a low-risk or low-stress event for police officers, which
is what you seemed to imply in your final paragraph.

Well, there is that, but I was really thinking more along the lines of dispelling some of the common myths about what the police can and cannot do (things like "you can't get a ticket unless you're going at least X mph over the limit"), and the easiest way to see some of that is to do a ride along.

raku sez: this decision seems to leave the ultimate determination of my 4th amendment rights up to the officer who pulls me over, if local or state law doesn't expressly prohibit arrest/search for a minor offense.

That's not how it works. The police have explicit rules that they must follow; these rules are set by federal law, state law, the courts (case law), and department policy. A police officer cannot just search you because they feel like it. In WA (my area of knowledge), the police cannot search you just because you are speeding or not wearing a seat belt (those are civil infractions, not crimes). In TX, no seat belt is apparently a misdemeanor, so you are subject to arrest (based on probable cause), and then being searched incident to that arrest.

It's not a matter of "minor offense," it's a whether or not something is a criminal violation or a civil infraction. Any criminal act is an arrestable offense (by definition, a crime is an act for which a punishment of imprisonment may be imposed), regardless of how "minor" it is. If not wearing a seat belt is a crime under state law, you can be arrested for it, just like any other crime. In WA, not wearing a seat belt is an infraction, so you just receive a notice of infraction and pay your fine or go to court or whatever.

If you want to read some of the actual law, the entire WA state Revised Code (RCW) is online at:

Some hints: RCW 9A.04.040 defines a crime.

Title 46 is motor vehicles; 46.61 is rules of the road (each rule will specify whether it is an infraction or a crime), and 46.63 has some stuff about the legislative intent in decriminalizing most traffic violations.

RCW 46.61.688 is the seat belt law. Paragraph 7 is what makes it a secondary offense (meaning the police can't pull you over for it).

RCW 46.61.687 is the child seat belt law. It doesn't say it's a secondary action, so it's a primary stop. There's no list in the law of what is or is not criteria for a traffic stop; probable cause for any crime or infraction that does not state otherwise (like 46.61.688) is reason for a traffic stop.

As far as I can tell from the information I have (I wasn't there, and haven't read anything outside the popular press) about this particular case, all the supreme court is saying is that, yes, you can be arrested for a criminal offense, in this case, not wearing a seat belt. In WA, based on what I've read, the woman could have been stopped (because the children weren't properly restrained), given a big-ass ticket for no valid operator's license (that's the offense if you've been issued a license, but don't have it with you when you're required to), no insurance, and however many seat belt violations. The whole ticket would run, oh, probably about $900 or so (NVOL is $250, no proof of insurance is about $450, each seat belt whammy is at least $70, maybe more for the children). Most of those can be dismissed or reduced if you show that you've got a license, got insurance, have acquired child seats, etc.
posted by doorsnake at 2:55 PM on April 25, 2001

Re: the lady in the case, there was an article on some recent SCt cases in the _National Law Journal_ (a weekly legal newspaper) last month describing the facts of this case. The only thing that I could add to the summary provided above was that the officer involved in the case had a history of flying off the handle at the slightest provocation (or with no provocation). In fact, some time after this arrest and the court suit (which the woman said had been brought about because of the local government's complacence regarding here complaints and, more interestingly, when she passed the same officer screaming and ranting at some citizens that he'd detained) the cop got fired from the police force.

Also, there's something that bothers the hell out of me regarding fourth amendment search and seizure cases that some criminal procedure guru might be able to explain. Right, people in the US have all these complex cases delineating what the police are authorized to do in different circumstances. Now, from what I can tell, the only time that any fourth amendment violations come up is when you're using them to suppress some evidence, quash a search warrant, etc. In other words, it only comes up if you get taken to trial, don't do a plea bargain (which excludes the majority of criminal cases), and raise the issue at trial.

Now, I guess that there might be some kind of potential sec. 1983 federal civil rights violation claim or something like that, but essentially what can the average joe do if the cops violate his rights but don't press charges? I'm talking about who can he sue, who can he put the hurt on? Not just complain to the police agency, who might give a shit someday. Really. Not anytime soon though.

Sorry for the long post, but this has been bothering me for years.
posted by estopped at 2:09 AM on April 26, 2001

estopped sez: Now, from what I can tell, the only time that any fourth amendment violations come up is when you're using them to suppress some evidence, quash a search warrant, etc. In other words, it only comes up if you get taken to trial, don't do a plea bargain (which excludes the majority of criminal cases), and raise the issue at trial.

Well, I think there's two things at work here. First, there are big 4th amendment cases, and second, what a lot of people think of as violations of their 4th amendment rights actually are not.

The classic 4th amendment case was Tennessee v. Garner, in 1985 I believe. This is the case that led to the abolishment of the "stop or I'll shoot" type activity by the police. For those not familiar with this, in this case an officer shot and killed a suspect fleeing from a burglary scene. The suspect's father sued, claiming that the shooting was, in effect, a "seizure" of his's son's person, and was not justified in this instance. The court agreed, and now the police have very strict rules on when they are allowed to shoot fleeing suspects (in general, for violent felonies committed in the officer's presense, in which the suspect is likely to commit additional acts, and there is no reasonable alternate method to apprehend the suspect).

The other bit, about when people seem to feel they've been violated but have not, seems to revolve around detaining people and/or patting them down for weapons. The standard for an investigative detention (also called a "Terry stop," after the Terry v. Ohio case that led to a lot of the rules about what the police can do during investigative detention) is reasonable suspicion, not probable cause (which is a tighter requirement).

As an example, if an officer sees somebody peering in an empty office building's windows at 3:00 am, that's reasonable suspicion to detain the individual (which is a "seizure") and find out what's going on. There is no probable cause at this point to arrest the suspect. In the course of the investigative detention, the officer may (if there is reasonable concern for officer safety, say, the subject is argumentative and won't take his hands out of his pockets when instructed to do so) pat down the subject for weapons, and handcuff them if it is deemed necessary. A "pat down" is a surface check for weapons, only (this is a search, but is deemed to be reasonable, provided the proper circumstances exist; the police can't just grab random people off the street and frisk them for weapons). Anyway, in the hypothetical example, if it turns out that the guy is, say, the owner and locked himself out and is just ticked off, the officer would turn him loose and be on his way. In this case, the subject's 4th amendment rights have not been violated, although he may very well believe they had.

That said, the recourse for real 4th amendment violations is to sue. Garner did it. You can read all about it at:

Information on the Terry v. Ohio case I mentioned can be found at:

And, just in case anybody had some reasonable suspicions of their own, no, I am not a lawyer.
posted by doorsnake at 12:06 PM on April 26, 2001

« Older   |   Those British boys at it again. Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments