By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
How far should the authority of the state extend when it comes to forcing us to do things “for our own good”?
The outcome of Atwater v. City of Lago Vista (2001) tells us quite plainly that there is virtually no corner of our existence into which the probing finger of the state may not extend.
Back in In 1997, while driving her kids home from soccer practice, Gail Atwater of Lago Vista, Texas, was arrested, handcuffed and carted off to jail … for the crime of not buckling up for safety. No moving violation, no threat to public order. She merely drove past a cop who spied her without her seatbelt on. Cue the red flashing lights, badges and guns.
According to witnesses, the cop bullied and threatened Atwater, “aggressively jamming his finger toward Atwater’s face” and “screaming” at her about the seatbelts. Witnesses to this ugly scene further testified that when Atwater requested — quietly and politely — that the cop lower his voice because he was scaring her children, he screamed “you’re going to jail!” — and handcuffed her in front of her kids. The children were — luckily — taken away by friends who happened upon the scene; the cop had threatened to take them to jail, too.
And to jail Atwater went — where she was forced to remove her shoes, jewelry, eyeglasses, empty her pockets and submit to fingerprinting just as if she’d robbed a 7-11 at gunpoint. A magistrate later permitted her to go after she posted a $310 bond.
In Texas at the time, it was legally permissible for police to treat motorists like criminals merely for committing a minor traffic infraction. The law bestowed upon police authority to perform so-called “custodial arrests” for routine traffic violations. The infraction need not involve public safety, or even rise to the level of a misdemeanor, as was the case with the seat belt issue. It was enough, under Texas law, merely to run afoul of someone else’s idea of what’s “for your own good.”
No one — including the arresting officer — alleged that Mrs. Atwater had been operating her vehicle in an unsafe manner or did anything to endanger anyone else. She simply decided not to buckle-up. That may or may not have been a wise decision as far as her personal safety is concerned. But it’s not a matter of public safety. And it certainly couldn’t be characterized as criminal — at least, not in the land we used to call the land of the free.
After she got out of jail, Mrs. Atwater, furious about her experience, sued the city of Lago Vista on the grounds that the treatment she experienced amounted to a violation of her constitutionally protected right against unreasonable arrest as defined by the Fourth Amendment — which by any sane standard seemed a reasonable argument.
Not surprisingly, given the times in which we live, the Supreme Court decided otherwise.
In the case of Atwater v. Lago Vista, the court ruled that it is neither unreasonable nor excessive to arrest and jail people merely for failing to wear a seat belt. The Court held that (police officer ) “…Turek was authorized (though not required) to make a custodial arrest without balancing costs and benefits or determining whether Atwater’s arrest was in some sense necessary.”
The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals had already found the arrest and incarceration of Mrs. Atwater “reasonable” because the arresting officer”…had reason to believe she violated the law” and “because the arrest was not conducted in an extraordinary manner.”
These statements — and subsequent rulings stamping “approved” on even worse abuses of our former liberties — reveal the mentality possessed by those who sit on the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals and Supreme Court of the Unites States. A mentality able to reconcile the plain language of the Bill of Rights and more importantly, the principles behind that document, with the spectacle of an officer manhandling a soccer mom for no greater offense against society than her failure to “buckle-up for safety.” It is not extraordinary, according to these judges, to assault a peaceable citizen for an “offense” that doesn’t even carry with it the possibility of jail time upon conviction.
Whether you believe “seat belts save lives” is beside the point. In the Old America, rapidly fading away, the state’s power to impose its will on us was at least somewhat limited.
The general standard was that a person had to be doing (or threatening to do) something that clearly, directly, threatened harm to others. We were still free, in those days, to do things our neighbors may not have approved of but which were still regarded as our own business.
That concept no longer exists — as far as the law (and the power of the state) is concerned, at least.
In addition to mandatory buckle-up laws, we must also kow-tow to random stops and interrogations at “sobriety checkpoints” (even though no probable cause for suspecting anything exists) and groping of our persons (and the pawing through of our effects) in order to get onto an airplane.
Our e-mails may be filched through, our phone calls monitored, our financial and medical records laid bare — all without warrant or even notice.
This is the “freedom” we’re supposedly fighting for in places like Afghanistan and Iraq?
Pray (for their sake) that we don’t succeed in imposing on the people in those countries what we have already permitted to be imposed upon ourselves.