Atwater v. City of Lago Vista

RESPONDENT:City of Lago Vista
LOCATION:Travis County Jail

DOCKET NO.: 99-1408
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

CITATION: 532 US 318 (2001)
ARGUED: Dec 04, 2000
DECIDED: Apr 24, 2001

Andy Taylor – Et al., as amici curiae, supporting the respondent
Robert C. De Carli – Argued the cause for the petitioners
Roger J. George, Jr. – Argued the cause for the respondents

Facts of the case

Under Texas law, it is a misdemeanor, punishable only by a fine, either for a front-seat passenger in a car equipped with safety belts not to wear one or for the driver to fail to secure any small child riding in front. In 1997, Gail Atwater was driving her truck in Lago Vista. Neither of Atwater’s children, who were sitting in the front seat, was wearing seatbelts. Lago Vista policeman Bart Turek observed the violations and pulled Atwater over. Ultimately, Atwater was handcuffed, placed in jail, and released on bond. Atwater then filed suit alleging that Turek’s actions had violated her Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable seizure. In granting the city summary judgment, the District Court ruled the claim meritless. In affirming, the en banc Court of Appeals held that the arrest was not unreasonable for Fourth Amendment purposes because no one disputed that Turek had probable cause to arrest Atwater, and there was no evidence the arrest was conducted in an extraordinary manner, unusually harmful to Atwater’s privacy interests.


Does the Fourth Amendment, either by incorporating common-law restrictions on misdemeanor arrests or otherwise, limit a police officer’s authority to arrest without warrant for minor criminal offenses?

Media for Atwater v. City of Lago Vista

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – December 04, 2000 in Atwater v. City of Lago Vista

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – April 24, 2001 in Atwater v. City of Lago Vista

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the Court in No. 99-1408, Atwater verus the City of Lago Vista will be announced by Justice Souter.

David H. Souter:

This case comes to us on writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

Texas state law makes it a misdemeanor, punishable only by a fine, for a front-seat passenger in a car equipped with seatbelts to fail to wear a seatbelt or for the driver of such a car to fail to secure any small child riding in front.

Texas law further authorizes the warrantless arrest for anyone found violating the seatbelt provisions, although it permits police to issue citations in lieu of arrest.

In March of 1997, a Lago Vista police officer stopped the petitioner Gail Atwater for violating the seatbelt law.

After upbraiding Atwater, the officer arrested and handcuffed her, placed her in his squad car, and transported her to the police station, where she was made to remove her shoes and jewelry and eyeglasses and empty her pockets.

Booking officers then took Atwater’s “mug shot” and placed her in a jail cell for approximately one hour at which time she was released on bond.

After pleading guilty to the seatbelt misdemeanor and paying the $50 fine, Atwater and her husband filed suit alleging that the officer’s actions violated her Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable seizure.

The District Court rejected Atwater’s claim and granted summary judgment for the City and the officer and the Fifth Circuit sitting en banc affirmed.

In an opinion filed today with the Clerk of Court, we affirm and hold that the Fourth amendment does not forbid police to make warrantless arrest for minor criminal offenses like the seatbelt misdemeanor in issue here.

Initially and we think significantly, there is no historical basis for such a limitation.

In the years leading up to this nation’s founding for example, Parliament repeatedly authorized police officers to make warrantless arrest for misdemeanor-level offenses.

The relevant American evidences to the same effect, neither the history of the framing, nor subsequent legal developments, indicate that the Fourth Amendment was originally understood or has traditionally been read to forbid warrantless misdemeanor arrests.

On the contrary for more than 200 years now, legislatures have conferred warrantless misdemeanor arrest power and courts have sustained that authority against constitutional challenge.

We will not depart from that tradition today.

Further we refuse Atwater’s request and mandate a new rule of constitutional law forbidding custodial arrest when conviction could not ultimately carry any jail time and the government shows no compelling need for immediate detention.

For reasons more fully explained in our opinion, we believe that a standard requiring sensitive case-by-case determinations of government need, would be difficult, if not outright impossible for officers in the field to administer and would result probably in a crush of Fourth Amendment litigation.

We simply are not convinced that there is a sufficiently serious problem of police abusing their minor offense arrest authority to justify the development of a new and distinct body of Fourth Amendment jurisprudence.

Isolated incidents can and should be dealt with through the normal political processes.

Justice O’Connor has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justices Stevens, Ginsburg and Breyer joined.