Atwater v. Lago Vista, 532 U.S. 318 (2001) 

The police can arrest you for anything that the law prohibits; anything at all, no matter how trivial. 

In Atwater v. Lago Vista, a City of Lago Vista police officer arrested Gail Atwater for driving her truck in Lago Vista, Texas, with her small children in the front seat. None of them were wearing a seatbelt. City of Atwater police officer Bart Turek verbally berated Mrs. Atwater, handcuffed her, placed her in his squad car, and drove her to the local police station, where she was made to remove her shoes, jewelry, and eyeglasses, and empty her pockets.

Officers took her “mug shot” and placed her, alone, in a jail cell for about an hour, after which she was taken before a magistrate and released on bond. She was charged with, among other things, violating the seatbelt law.

She pleaded no contest to the seatbelt misdemeanors and paid a $50 fine. She and her husband (collectively Atwater) filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging, inter alia, that the actions of respondents (collectively City) had violated her Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable seizure.

The United States Supreme Court held that because Officer Turek had probable cause to arrest Mrs. Atwater, and there was no evidence the arrest was conducted in an extraordinary manner, unusually harmful to Atwater’s privacy interests, the court (Justice Souter) held the arrest not unreasonable for Fourth Amendment purposes.

Accordingly, a police officer can arrest one for anything that the law prohibits; anything at all.

Although under various state laws, such as in California, a peace officer can only give you a Citation and cannot take you to jail for a minor traffic infraction if you have sufficient identification, because in California state law claim for false arrest does not provide for an award of attorney’s fees, and because most de minimis false arrest cases are “fees driven cases” (that is, the award of attorney’s fees will probably exceed the award to the plaintiff), most lawyers will not take state law false arrest cases.

Accordingly, because Justice Souter decided that he doesn’t want to burden police officers with having to determine if the crime that he found you in violation of is one that is an arrestable offense under state law, if the police have probable cause to believe that you violated any public offense, felony, misdemeanor of de minimis infraction (i.e. speeding, improper lane change, etc.), it does not violate the Fourth Amendment for the officer to take you to jail for any such violation.

Jerry L. Steering, Esq.