Feel Confined by Your Seat Belt? How About Handcuffs?

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A motorist pleads as she receives a ticket from a police officer

You're driving down the road, minding your own business, when it suddenly occurs to you that you've forgotten to buckle your seat belt. And then, just as you reach down to fasten the strap, you see flashing red and blue lights in your rearview mirror.

Not such a nice surprise. But it gets worse: Instead of getting a ticket, you're arrested and handcuffed. And as of Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court has no complaints.

This scenario happens every day in states across the country: Police in some states have the right to arrest drivers who've committed relatively trivial traffic violations, like not wearing a seat belt. Not surprisingly, the implicated drivers tend not to be particularly happy about being handcuffed, taken to the station and fingerprinted. But now, thanks to a 5-4 ruling from the Supreme Court, such civilian complaints will fall on deaf ears.

No one knows this better than the plaintiff in this case. Gail Atwater, who was returning from a soccer practice with her two young children, claimed Texas police violated her Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure when they arrested her in 1997 after noticing that none of the trio was wearing a seat belt. Justices Souter, Scalia, Thomas, Kennedy and Rehnquist ruled against Atwater, stating that while "the arrest and booking were inconvenient to Atwater, they were not so extraordinary as to violate the Fourth Amendment." Interestingly, everyone on the Court agreed with Atwater and her lawyer that the policeman in this situation went overboard — cuffing a soccer mom seems somewhat beyond normal procedure — but the majority maintained the officer acted within the letter of the law. (Atwater was handcuffed and a friend was called to pick up her children. She posted bond later that day and paid the $50 fine for the seat belt violation).

Tuesday's ruling is notable not only for motorists, who may henceforth want to pay special attention to fastening their seat belts, but also in terms of its legal repercussions. Per this ruling, police can arrest and handcuff you for not wearing your seat belt from the trip between your house and your neighbor's home half a block away. Excessive? Perhaps. Legal? Absolutely.

Does the ruling signal an overarching trend on Fourth Amendment cases? The answer depends largely upon whom you ask. Some observers have noted disapprovingly this Court's tendency to rule against citizens seeking extended Fourth Amendment protections while supporting, on the other hand, attempts by police forces to detain suspects or search cars. It's a trend that alarms some constitutional scholars — but others, like Boston College law professor Robert Bloom, see Tuesday's ruling as just another unpredictable decision from an increasingly unpredictable Court.

"Until a few years ago, I might have agreed with the theory of a Court bent on restricting Fourth Amendment rights," Bloom told TIME.com Tuesday. "But over the last couple of years, there have been some inconsistencies in this Court's rulings on search-and-seizure cases. And so it's hard to draw any conclusions about this Court's attitude toward Fourth Amendment protections. In this case, they ruled the arrest was reasonable, that the police had probable cause to pull the car over."

One noteworthy characteristic of Tuesday's ruling struck Bloom immediately. "What's particularly interesting about today's decision is that it was written by David Souter, one of the Justices who usually rules in favor of individual rights," says Bloom. Souter's customary cohorts, Justices Ginsburg, Stevens and Breyer, were joined by Justice O'Connor in the dissent.