Atwater v. City of Lago Vista

Atwater v. City of Lago Vista

United States Supreme Court
532 U.S. 318 (2001)

ISSUE: Does the 4th Amdt. prohibit a warrantless arrest for a minor criminal offense such as a misdemeanor seatbelt violation punishable only be a fine?
HOLDING: No, 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 4th Amdt., arrest the offender.
  • D was driving with her 3-year-old son and 5-year-old son in her truck when an officer saw that none of them had a seatbelt on
  • Officer pulled the truck over, and when D was unable to produce a driver's license and insurance documentation, she was arrested
  • D brought this civil suit against the City for violation of her 4th Amdt. rights to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures
  • Dist. Ct. dismissed D's suit as "meritless" and granted city's motion for summary judgment
  • Panel of the Ct. App. reversed holding that an arrest for a first-time seatbelt offense was unreasonable under the 4th Amdt.
  • Ct. App. sitting en banc vacated panel's decision and affirmed the Dist. Ct.'s summary judgment for the City
  • CL commentators reach divergent conclusions: While D contends that the CL forbade officers from arresting misdemeants without a warrant unless the misdemeanor involved a "breach of the peace," the CL commentators have reached no unanimous consensus on the issue
    • Hale said a constable could arrest without a warrant for breach of the peace and some misdemeanors
    • Divers Statutes authorized arrests for misdemeanors without reference to violence or turmoil
    • Atwater's view is sufficiently unsettled to indicate that her view was not necessarily the one held by the Framers of the 4th Amdt.
  • Same is true of strictly-American evidence: Colonial and state legislatures regularly authorized local peace officers to make warrantless misdemeanor arrests without conditioning them upon breaches of the peace
    • State authority conferred upon US Marshals by 2nd Congress
    • All 50 states and DC allow such arrests
  • Won't adopt fine-only/jailable offense line: While Atwater suggests that arrests should only be allowed for misdemeanor violations when the offense will carry jail time, such a dividing line would be difficult if not impossible to make in the field
    • Penalty schemes are relatively unknowable at the time of arrest
    • Proviso allowing for arrests when necessary for enforcement of traffic laws only compounds the difficulties
    • Don't want to provide a disincentive for arresting offenders
  • Arrest was constitutional: No question that officer had PC

DISSENT - O'Connor:

  • Inconsistent because Court agrees that arrest was "pointless indignity" but still holds the arrest constitutionally permissible
  • When history is inconclusive, Court must resort to the traditional reasonableness inquiry by balancing the degree to which the search or seizure intrudes upon the individual's privacy on one hand and the degree to which it is needed for the promotion of legitimate governmental interests on the other
    • Justifying a full arrest by the same quantum of evidence that justifies a traffic stop -- even though the offender ultimately cannot be imprisoned for her conduct -- defies any sense of proportionality and is in serious tension with the 4th Amdt.'s proscription of unreasonable seizures
    • Arrest exacts an obvious toll on the individual's liberty, even if the period of custody is relatively brief
    • Where a fine is the only punishment, the State's interest in arresting an offender is limited at best
  • Cannot concur in a rule which deems a full custodial arrest to be reasonable in every circumstance
  • Qualified immunity will protect many officers from liability and thus prevent disincentives for arresting offenders
  • Atwater's arrest was constitutionally unreasonable
    • Officer's actions severely infringed upon Atwater's liberty and privacy


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