Copyright (c) 2002 Fordham Law Review
Fordham Law Review
ARTICLE: WHAT WERE THEY THINKING? FOURTH AMENDMENT UNREASONABLENESS IN ATWATER V. CITY OF LAGO VISTA
71 Fordham L. Rev. 329
Richard S. Frase*
In Atwater v. City of Lago Vista, 1 a five-to-four majority of the Supreme Court held that the Fourth Amendment places no limitations other than probable cause on police discretion to make a custodial arrest rather than issuing a citation for a minor traffic offense. Ms. Atwater was handcuffed and taken to jail even though she was charged with a seat belt violation punishable only with a small fine, and there was no legitimate law enforcement need to take her into custody (e.g., to confirm identification or prevent further dangerous driving). Seat belt violators are normally issued citations, 2 and it appears that the officer in this case made the arrest because he was angry at Ms. Atwater and wanted to teach her a lesson. 3
The decision in Atwater has been widely criticized, even by conservatives, 4 and with good reason. Indeed, the closer one looks at Justice Souter's majority opinion and the issues involved, the less sense it makes. The decision is "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." 5 The enigma is apparent from even a superficial recitation of the facts: 6 jailing a driver for a fine-only seat belt violation, with no need for custody whatsoever, and apparently in bad faith, is clearly unreasonable. The mystery deepens when one examines Justice Souter's reasons for rejecting Ms. Atwater's claim. Justice Souter seems to admit that, on the facts alleged by the Petitioner (and which the Court assumed to be true), her arrest was ...
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