Atwater v. City of Lago Vista (2001)

Supreme Court of the United States

Gail Atwater v. City of Lago Vista  

Decided April 24, 2001 – 532 U.S. 318 


Justice SOUTER delivered the opinion of the Court. 

The question is whether the Fourth Amendment forbids a warrantless arrest for a minor criminal offense, such as a misdemeanor seatbelt violation punishable only by a fine. We hold that it does not. 

In Texas, if a car is equipped with safety belts, a front-seat passenger must wear one, and the driver must secure any small child riding in front. Violation of either provision is “a misdemeanor punishable by a fine not less than $25 or more than $50.” 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. 

In March 1997, petitioner Gail Atwater was driving her pickup truck in Lago Vista, Texas, with her 3-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter in the front seat. None of them was wearing a seatbelt. Respondent Bart Turek, a Lago Vista police officer at the time, observed the seatbelt violations and pulled Atwater over. According to Atwater’s complaint (the allegations of which we assume to be true for present purposes), Turek approached the truck and “yell[ed]” something to the effect of “[w]e’ve met before” and “[y]ou’re going to jail.” He then called for backup and asked to see Atwater’s driver’s license and insurance documentation, which state law required her to carry. When Atwater told Turek that she did not have the papers because her purse had been stolen the day before, Turek said that he had “heard that story two-hundred times.”  

Atwater asked to take her “frightened, upset, and crying” children to a friend’s house nearby, but Turek told her, “[y]ou’re not going anywhere.” As it turned out, Atwater’s friend learned what was going on and soon arrived to take charge of the children. Turek then handcuffed Atwater, placed her in his squad car, and drove her to the local police station, where booking officers had her remove her shoes, jewelry, and eyeglasses, and empty her pockets. Officers took Atwater’s “mug shot” and placed her, alone, in a jail cell for about one hour, after which she was taken before a magistrate and released on $310 bond. 

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. She ultimately pleaded no contest to the misdemeanor seatbelt offenses and paid a $50 fine; the other charges were dismissed. 

Atwater and her husband, petitioner Michael Haas, filed suit in a Texas state court against Turek and respondents City of Lago Vista and Chief of Police Frank Miller. So far as concerns us, petitioners (whom we will simply call Atwater) alleged that respondents (for simplicity, the City) had violated Atwater’s Fourth Amendment “right to be free from unreasonable seizure” and sought compensatory and punitive damages. 




…[S]he asks us to mint a new rule of constitutional law on the understanding that when historical practice fails to speak conclusively to a claim grounded on the Fourth Amendment, courts are left to strike a current balance between individual and societal interests by subjecting particular contemporary circumstances to traditional standards of reasonableness. Atwater accordingly argues for a modern arrest rule, one not necessarily requiring violent breach of the peace, but nonetheless forbidding custodial arrest, even upon probable cause, when conviction could not ultimately carry any jail time and when the government shows no compelling need for immediate detention.  

If we were to derive a rule exclusively to address the uncontested facts of this case, Atwater might well prevail. She was a known and established resident of Lago Vista with no place to hide and no incentive to flee, and common sense says she would almost certainly have buckled up as a condition of driving off with a citation. In her case, the physical incidents of arrest were merely gratuitous humiliations imposed by a police officer who was (at best) exercising extremely poor judgment. Atwater’s claim to live free of pointless indignity and confinement clearly outweighs anything the City can raise against it specific to her case. 

But we have traditionally recognized that a responsible Fourth Amendment balance is not well served by standards requiring sensitive, case-by-case determinations of government need, lest every discretionary judgment in the field be converted into an occasion for constitutional review. Often enough, the Fourth Amendment has to be applied on the spur (and in the heat) of the moment, and the object in implementing its command of reasonableness is to draw standards sufficiently clear and simple to be applied with a fair prospect of surviving judicial second-guessing months and years after an arrest or search is made. Courts attempting to strike a reasonable Fourth Amendment balance thus credit the government’s side with an essential interest in readily administrable rules.  

[C]omplications arise the moment we begin to think about the possible applications of the several criteria Atwater proposes for drawing a line between minor crimes with limited arrest authority and others not so restricted. 

One line, she suggests, might be between “jailable” and “fine-only” offenses, between those for which conviction could result in commitment and those for which it could not. The trouble with this distinction, of course, is that an officer on the street might not be able to tell. It is not merely that we cannot expect every police officer to know the details of frequently complex penalty schemes, but that penalties for ostensibly identical conduct can vary on account of facts difficult (if not impossible) to know at the scene of an arrest. Is this the first offense or is the suspect a repeat offender? Is the weight of the marijuana a gram above or a gram below the fine-only line? Where conduct could implicate more than one criminal prohibition, which one will the district attorney ultimately decide to charge? And so on. 


Accordingly, we confirm today what our prior cases have intimated: the standard of probable cause “applie[s] to all arrests, without the need to ‘balance’ the interests and circumstances involved in particular situations.” If an officer has probable cause to believe that an individual has committed even a very minor criminal offense in his presence, he may, without violating the Fourth Amendment, arrest the offender. 


Atwater’s arrest satisfied constitutional requirements. There is no dispute that Officer Turek had probable cause to believe that Atwater had committed a crime in his presence. She admits that neither she nor her children were wearing seatbelts. Turek was accordingly authorized (not required, but authorized) to make a custodial arrest without balancing costs and benefits or determining whether or not Atwater’s arrest was in some sense necessary. 

Nor was the arrest made in an “extraordinary manner, unusually harmful to [her] privacy or … physical interests.” Atwater’s arrest was surely “humiliating,” as she says in her brief, but it was no more “harmful to … privacy or … physical interests” than the normal custodial arrest. She was handcuffed, placed in a squad car, and taken to the local police station, where officers asked her to remove her shoes, jewelry, and glasses, and to empty her pockets. They then took her photograph and placed her in a cell, alone, for about an hour, after which she was taken before a magistrate, and released on $310 bond. The arrest and booking were inconvenient and embarrassing to Atwater, but not so extraordinary as to violate the Fourth Amendment. 

The Court of Appeals’s en banc judgment is affirmed. 

Justice O’CONNOR, with whom Justice STEVENS, Justice GINSBURG, and Justice BREYER join, dissenting. 

The Court recognizes that the arrest of Gail Atwater was a “pointless indignity” that served no discernible state interest and yet holds that her arrest was constitutionally permissible. Because the Court’s position is inconsistent with the explicit guarantee of the Fourth Amendment, I dissent. 

A full custodial arrest, such as the one to which Ms. Atwater was subjected, is the quintessential seizure. When a full custodial arrest is effected without a warrant, the plain language of the Fourth Amendment requires that the arrest be reasonable. 

A custodial arrest exacts an obvious toll on an individual’s liberty and privacy, even when the period of custody is relatively brief. The arrestee is subject to a full search of her person and confiscation of her possessions. If the arrestee is the occupant of a car, the entire passenger compartment of the car, including packages therein, is subject to search as well.33 The arrestee may be detained for up to 48 hours without having a magistrate determine whether there in fact was probable cause for the arrest. Because people arrested for all types of violent and nonviolent offenses may be housed together awaiting such review, this detention period is potentially dangerous. And once the period of custody is over, the fact of the arrest is a permanent part of the public record.  


Because a full custodial arrest is such a severe intrusion on an individual’s liberty, its reasonableness hinges on “the degree to which it is needed for the promotion of legitimate governmental interests.” In light of the availability of citations to promote a State’s interests when a fine-only offense has been committed, I cannot concur in a rule which deems a full custodial arrest to be reasonable in every circumstance. Giving police officers constitutional carte blanche to effect an arrest whenever there is probable cause to believe a fine-only misdemeanor has been committed is irreconcilable with the Fourth Amendment’s command that seizures be reasonable. Instead, I would require that when there is probable cause to believe that a fine-only offense has been committed, the police officer should issue a citation unless the officer is “able to point to specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warrant [the additional] intrusion” of a full custodial arrest.  

The record in this case makes it abundantly clear that Ms. Atwater’s arrest was constitutionally unreasonable. Atwater readily admits—as she did when Officer Turek pulled her over—that she violated Texas’ seatbelt law. While Turek was justified in stopping Atwater, neither law nor reason supports his decision to arrest her instead of simply giving her a citation. The officer’s actions cannot sensibly be viewed as a permissible means of balancing Atwater’s Fourth Amendment interests with the State’s own legitimate interests. 


Such unbounded discretion carries with it grave potential for abuse. The majority takes comfort in the lack of evidence of “an epidemic of unnecessary minor-offense arrests.” But the relatively small number of published cases dealing with such arrests proves little and should provide little solace. Indeed, as the recent debate over racial profiling demonstrates all too clearly, a relatively minor traffic infraction may often serve as an excuse for stopping and harassing an individual. After today, the arsenal available to any officer extends to a full arrest and the searches permissible concomitant to that arrest. An officer’s subjective motivations for making a traffic stop are not relevant considerations in determining the reasonableness of the stop. But it is precisely because these motivations are beyond our purview that we must vigilantly ensure that officers’ poststop actions—which are properly within our reach—comport with the Fourth Amendment’s guarantee of reasonableness. 

The Court neglects the Fourth Amendment’s express command in the name of administrative ease. In so doing, it cloaks the pointless indignity that Gail Atwater suffered with the mantle of reasonableness. I respectfully dissent. 


Notes, Comments, and Questions  

The result in Atwater may exemplify a maxim popularized by Justice Antonin Scalia, who once observed during a speech, “A lot of stuff that’s stupid is not unconstitutional.” Justice Scalia added that during a prior speech, he had proposed that all federal judges should receive a stamp with the words “STUPID BUT CONSTITUTIONAL” that could be used on complaints; then someone sent him one. Scalia, like others expressing similar sentiments, was known to argue that if you wish to prohibit stupid (but constitutional) conduct, you should contact your legislature, not federal judges. 

If students encounter examples in this book of disagreeable police (or prosecutorial) conduct that the Court has deemed constitutional, they may wish to ask themselves two questions: (1) Is it plausible that a legislature can solve the problem that the Court has declined to solve, and (2) what specific suggestions might I have for my legislator? Most students are far more likely to become legislators than Supreme Court Justices. 


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