Ruling 5-4 in a case that could affect any of America's 185 million drivers, the justices said such an arrest does not violate the Constitution's Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable seizures.
Police generally can arrest anyone they see breaking the law, the court said as it barred a Texas woman from suing the officer who handcuffed her and took her to jail.
The Fourth Amendment protects "the right of the people to be secure ... against unreasonable searches and seizures." A lower court had ruled that Gail Atwater could not sue over her arrest because the officer did not violate her constitutional rights.
Atwater was driving her two children home from soccer practice in 1997 in Lago Vista, Texas, when she was stopped by a police officer who had noticed the three were not wearing seat belts.
Texas law allows police to make arrests for routine traffic violations, except for speeding. The officer arrested Atwater, handcuffed her hands behind her back and took her to the city police station. A friend looked after her children and her pickup truck was towed away.
Atwater's mug shot was taken and she was released after posting bond. She later pleaded no contest to the seat belt offense and paid the maximum $50 fine.
Atwater and her husband, Michael Haas, sued the city and the police officer, saying the arrest violated her constitutional rights.
The high court majority rejected her argument that police should not have arrested her for a crime that would carry no jail time.
"The question is whether the Fourth Amendment forbids a warrantless arrest for a minor criminal offense, such as a misdemeanor seat-belt violation punishable only by a fine. We hold that it does not," Justice David Souter said for the court majority.
Souter, normally one of the court's most liberal members, was joined by four conservatives - Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas.
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, John Paul Stevens and Stephen Breyer dissented.
O'Connor, a moderate conservative, dissented, saying, "The court neglects the Fourth Amendment's express command in the name of administrative ease" and it "cloaks the pointless indignity" that the woman in the case suffered "with the mantle of reasonableness."
A lower federal judge had thrown out Atwater's lawsuit. A three-judge appellate court reinstated it, but the full 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled she could not sue.
The appeals court said the arrest was reasonable because the officer had reason to believe Atwater violated the law and the rrest was not carried out in an "extraordinary manner."
The states have widely varying policies on whether police can arrest people for minor offenses. Some states allow officers to arrest people for offenses punishable only by a fine, while others prohibit it. Some states let officers arrest someone they witness committing a misdemeanor offense only if the offense is considered a breach of peace.
During arguments at the Supreme Court last December, Atwater's lawyer said the Fourth Amendment restricts the use of arrest for minor offenses. The case would be different if someone were stopped for drunken or reckless driving, which could cause danger for others on the road if they were released, her lawyer said.
The city's lawyer had argued that police are allowed to make an arrest if they witness someone violating the law. Police often don't have enough information to know if someone's actions are a misdemeanor or felony, the lawyer said.
The case is Atwater v. Lago Vista, 99-1408.
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