Atwater v. Lago Vista

Citation532 U.S. 318
Decision Date24 April 2001
Docket NumberNo. 99-1408.,99-1408.
PartiesATWATER et al. v. CITY OF LAGO VISTA et al.
CourtU.S. Supreme Court






Souter, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas, JJ., joined. O'Connor, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Stevens, Ginsburg, and Breyer, JJ., joined, post, p. 360.

Robert C. DeCarli argued the cause for petitioners. With him on the briefs were Debra Irwin, Pamela McGraw, and Michael F. Sturley.

R. James George, Jr., argued the cause for respondents. With him on the brief were William W. Krueger III and Joanna R. Lippman.

Gregory S. Coleman, Solicitor General of Texas, argued the cause for the State of Texas et al. as amici curiae urging affirmance. With him on the brief were John Cornyn, Attorney General, Andy Taylor, First Assistant Attorney General, and Lisa R. Eskow, Assistant Attorney General, and the Attorneys General for their respective States as follows: Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Ken Salazar of Colorado, M. Jane Brady of Delaware, Carla J. Stovall of Kansas, J. Joseph Curran, Jr., of Maryland, Joseph P. Mazurek of Montana, W. A. Drew Edmondson of Oklahoma, Charles M. Condon of South Carolina, and Mark L. Earley of Virginia.*

Justice Souter, delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question is whether the Fourth Amendment forbids a warrantless arrest for a minor criminal offense, such as a misdemeanor seatbelt violation punishable only by a fine. We hold that it does not.


In Texas, if a car is equipped with safety belts, a frontseat passenger must wear one, Tex. Transp. Code Ann. § 545.413(a) (1999), and the driver must secure any small child riding in front, § 545.413(b). Violation of either provision is "a misdemeanor punishable by a fine not less than $25 or more than $50." § 545.413(d). Texas law expressly authorizes "any peace officer to arrest without warrant a person found committing a violation" of these seatbelt laws, § 543.001, although it permits police to issue citations in lieu of arrest, §§ 543.003-543.005.

In March 1997, petitioner Gail Atwater was driving her pickup truck in Lago Vista, Texas, with her 3-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter in the front seat. None of them was wearing a seatbelt. Respondent Bart Turek, a Lago Vista police officer at the time, observed the seatbelt violations and pulled Atwater over. According to Atwater's complaint (the allegations of which we assume to be true for present purposes), Turek approached the truck and "yelled" something to the effect of "we've met before" and "you're going to jail." App. 20.1 He then called for backup and asked to see Atwater's driver's license and insurance documentation, which state law required her to carry. Tex. Transp. Code Ann. §§ 521.025, 601.053 (1999). When Atwater told Turek that she did not have the papers because her purse had been stolen the day before, Turek said that he had "heard that story two-hundred times." App. 21.

Atwater asked to take her "frightened, upset, and crying" children to a friend's house nearby, but Turek told her, "you're not going anywhere." Ibid. As it turned out, Atwater's friend learned what was going on and soon arrived to take charge of the children. Turek then handcuffed Atwater, placed her in his squad car, and drove her to the local police station, where booking officers had her remove her shoes, jewelry, and eyeglasses, and empty her pockets. Officers took Atwater's "mug shot" and placed her, alone, in a jail cell for about one hour, after which she was taken before a magistrate and released on $310 bond.

Atwater was charged with driving without her seatbelt fastened, failing to secure her children in seatbelts, driving without a license, and failing to provide proof of insurance. She ultimately pleaded no contest to the misdemeanor seatbelt offenses and paid a $50 fine; the other charges were dismissed.


Atwater and her husband, petitioner Michael Haas, filed suit in a Texas state court under 42 U. S. C. § 1983 against Turek and respondents City of Lago Vista and Chief of Police Frank Miller. So far as concerns us, petitioners (whom we will simply call Atwater) alleged that respondents (for simplicity, the City) had violated Atwater's Fourth Amendment "right to be free from unreasonable seizure," App. 23, and sought compensatory and punitive damages.

The City removed the suit to the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas. Given Atwater's admission that she had "violated the law" and the absence of any allegation "that she was harmed or detained in any way inconsistent with the law," the District Court ruled the Fourth Amendment claim "meritless" and granted the City's summary judgment motion. No. A-97 CA 679 SS (WD Tex., Feb. 13, 1999), App. to Pet. for Cert. 50a—63a. A panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed. 165 F. 3d 380 (1999). It concluded that "an arrest for a first-time seat belt offense" was an unreasonable seizure within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, id., at 387, and held that Turek was not entitled to qualified immunity, id., at 389.

Sitting en banc, the Court of Appeals vacated the panel's decision and affirmed the District Court's summary judgment for the City. 195 F. 3d 242 (CA5 1999). Relying on Whren v. United States, 517 U. S. 806 (1996), the en banc court observed that, although the Fourth Amendment generally requires a balancing of individual and governmental interests, where "an arrest is based on probable cause then `with rare exceptions . . .the result of that balancing is not in doubt.' " 195 F. 3d, at 244 (quoting Whren, supra, at 817). Because "neither party disputed that Officer Turek had probable cause to arrest Atwater," and because "there was no evidence in the record that Officer Turek conducted the arrest in an `extraordinary manner, unusually harmful' to Atwater's privacy interests," the en banc court held that the arrest was not unreasonable for Fourth Amendment purposes. 195 F. 3d, at 245-246 (quoting Whren, supra, at 818).

Three judges issued dissenting opinions. On the understanding that citation is the "usual procedure" in a traffic stop situation, Judge Reynaldo Garza thought Atwater's arrest unreasonable, since there was no particular reason for taking her into custody. 195 F. 3d, at 246-247. Judge Weiner likewise believed that "even with probable cause, an officer must have a plausible, articulable reason" for making a custodial arrest. Id., at 251. Judge Dennis understood the Fourth Amendment to have incorporated an earlier, common-law prohibition on warrantless arrests for misdemeanors that do not amount to or involve a "breach of the peace." Ibid.

We granted certiorari to consider whether the Fourth Amendment, either by incorporating common-law restrictions on misdemeanor arrests or otherwise, limits police officers' authority to arrest without warrant for minor criminal offenses. 530 U. S. 1260 (2000). We now affirm.


The Fourth Amendment safeguards "the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures." In reading the Amendment, we are guided by "the traditional protections against unreasonable searches and seizures afforded by the common law at the time of the framing," Wilson v. Arkansas, 514 U. S. 927, 931 (1995), since "an examination of the common-law understanding of an officer's authority to arrest sheds light on the obviously relevant, if not entirely dispositive, consideration of what the Framers of the Amendment might have thought to be reasonable," Payton v. New York, 445 U. S. 573, 591 (1980) (footnote omitted). Thus, the first step here is to assess Atwater's claim that peace officers' authority to make warrantless arrests for misdemeanors was restricted at common law (whether "common law" is understood strictly as law judicially derived or, instead, as the whole body of law extant at the time of the framing). Atwater's specific contention is that "founding-era common-law rules" forbade peace officers to make warrantless misdemeanor arrests except in cases of "breach of the peace," a category she claims was then understood narrowly as covering only those nonfelony offenses "involving or tending toward violence." Brief for Petitioners 13. Although her historical argument is by no means insubstantial, it ultimately fails.


We begin with the state of pre-founding English common law and find that, even after making some allowance for variations in the common-law usage of the term "breach of the peace,"2 the "founding-era common-law rules" were not nearly as clear as Atwater claims; on the contrary, the common-law commentators (as well as the sparsely reported cases) reached divergent conclusions with respect to officers' warrantless misdemeanor arrest power. Moreover, in the years leading up to American independence, Parliament repeatedly extended express warrantless arrest authority to cover misdemeanor-level offenses not amounting to or involving any violent breach of the peace.

Atwater's historical argument begins with our quotation from Halsbury in Carroll v. United States, 267 U. S. 132 (1925), that

"`in cases of misdemeanor, a peace officer like a private person has at common law no power of arresting without a warrant except when a breach of the peace has been committed in his presence or there is reasonable ground for supposing that a breach of peace is about to be committed or renewed in his presence.' " Id., at 157 (quoting 9 Halsbury, Laws of England § 612, p. 299 (1909)).

But the isolated quotation tends to mislead. In Carroll itself we spoke of the common-law rule as only "sometimes expressed" that way, 267 U. S., at 157, and, indeed, in the very same...

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