Buckle Up Fight Goes To Supreme Court

001204 earlyshow gail atwater pamela mcgraw
Gail Atwater's slow drive down a dusty Texas road has taken her all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

She was arrested, handcuffed and locked in a jail cell in 1997 - because she and her two children weren't wearing seat belts while riding in the family pickup truck.

That family drive has become a challenge of the power of police. The Supreme Court will hear arguments Monday from lawyers for Atwater and the city of Lago Vista on whether her arrest violated the Constitution's Fourth Amendment, which bans unreasonable arrests and searches.

"Our lives would have been much better if we would have just swallowed it," Atwater said. "We're not anti-cop...(but) this is about reining the cops in and how far cops can intrude in our lives."

In an interview with CBS News Early Show Anchor Bryant Gumbel, Atwater added that the four-year-long legal battle has "cost us emotionally. Financially, over $100,000. It's all our money. We borrowed it from our parents and sold our house. There is a price to citizenship and Mike (her husband) and I have the courage of our convictions."

One of Atwater's attorneys, Robert DeCarli, says the court's ruling could affect just about anyone with a driver's license.

"Every driver, if they get caught committing a traffic violation, they expect to get a ticket. Nobody expects to be handcuffed and taken to jail," DeCarli said.

Atwater, 48, was driving her children, Mac and Anya, who were then 4 and 6, home from soccer practice when she was stopped by Lago Vista police officer Bart Turek.

"I allowed my kids out of their seat belts to look for a toy," explains Atwater. "We were going 15 miles per hour, on a quiet streets. There wasn't another car there. Officer Turek saw us and stopped us."

"He talked very loudly to us," says Atwater, who charges that the officer was verbally abusive. "I turned to him and quietly asked him to lower his voice. And he got right up in my face and said 'You're going to jail.' And from there on, a normal traffic stop deteriorated."

Atwater could not produce her driver's license and proof of insurance. She said her purse had been stolen.

She said Turek yelled "You're going to jail!"

"I can't tell you enough how horrible it was for my kids," Atwater said.

It was not their first encounter. Turek had pulled her over once before when he thought her son was not belted in, but he didn't give her a ticket that time because the boy was, in fact, wearing a seat belt.

This time, Turek took Atwater to the police station while a friend took the children. She was booked and placed in a holding cell for about an hour before posting $310 bail. She later pleaded no contest to three seat belt violations and paid a $50 fine for each, along with a $110 towing fee on her pickup.

Under Texas law, a police officer is allowed - but not required - to arrest someone for a seat belt violation. he offense does not carry jail time.

Atwater complained to the city and asked for her $110 back, but when she got no satisfaction she and husband Mike Haas sued the city, Turek and police Chief Frank Miller.

"All I wanted was to rein this guy in, and get reimbursed the money for towing the truck," Atwater said. She said she never asked for an apology. "I knew they wouldn't do that. That would be an admission of guilt."

A federal judge first dismissed the case. A three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Atwater but the full 17-judge court later reversed that ruling. Atwater is asking the Supreme Court to let her lawsuit proceed.

She has the support of the Texas office of the American Civil Liberties Union.

"The fear of minor traffic offenses that don't even have jail terms does not outweigh the right to be left alone," said Will Harrell, executive director of the ACLU office in Austin.

Federal and state attorneys filed briefs in support of Lago Vista, a town of about 2,500 people located 15 miles northwest of Austin.

"The state of Texas has a very significant interest in making sure that toddlers are wearing their seat belts so they won't be harmed or killed in accidents on Texas highways," said state First Assistant Attorney General Andy Taylor.

Bill Krueger, the lawyer defending the city and police department, has said the officer's actions were reasonable and constitutional. He would not discuss the case with The Associated Press.

Lago Vista Mayor Dennis Jones wouldn't comment. Turek is now a Williamson County sheriff's deputy. It was a career move for Turek and he wasn't asked to leave, Jones said.

In addition to the $110 towing fee, Atwater and her husband, an emergency room doctor, are seeking attorneys fees. They have spent about $110,000 fighting the case, sold their house in Lago Vista and borrowed money from their parents.

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