Supreme Court To Hear Soccer Mom Case - ABC News

Gail Atwater couldn’t have guessed how much trouble her 4-year-old son’s lost toy could cause her — let alone that she’d be arguing about the consequences three years later before the U.S. Supreme Court.

It began in 1997, when the boy’s suction-operated plastic toy bat apparently lost its grip and fell from the window of Atwater’s car as she was driving her children home from soccer practice.

She turned around to retrace their route and slowed to about 15 mph. Then she told her son and daughter they could take off their seat belts to look out the windows for the toy.

And so began three years of legal battles for Atwater and the small town of Lago Vista, Texas.

Ironic Implications

The Supreme Court will consider whether Atwater, who was arrested, handcuffed and taken to jail for not wearing a seat belt, was subjected to unreasonable arrest.

The decision not only has implications for Atwater and her family (she and her husband have sold their house, moved out of Lago Vista and spent more than $100,000 on the case), many believe it could lead to important groundwork for protecting anyone, particularly minorities, from unreasonable arrests and searches.

“The bitter irony of this story is that Ms. Atwater, as a white woman, is not the typical victim of police abuse,” says William Harrell of the Texas American Civil Liberties Union. “Our concern is what will happen for African-Americans and Latinos if police are allowed to arrest people for infractions that don’t even provide for jail time.”

At least two groups, the ACLU and Americans for Effective Law Enforcement have submitted arguments saying the Supreme Court should use this case to spell out national guidelines for when an arrest is warranted. The ACLU has further argued that no violation that incurs only a fine should be grounds for arrest.

Police Are Concerned

In briefs to the high court, federal and state lawyers counter that police have broad discretion to arrest people when they have probable cause they have violated the law. And law enforcement organizations are concerned a ruling in favor of Atwater could make it difficult for police to do their job.

“Our organization did not take an official stance on the case, but we are concerned about any blanket rule that says you can’t arrest someone for a traffic offense,” says Stephen McSpadden, general counsel for the National Association of Police Organizations. “There may be situations where you may need to arrest somebody. To hold police accountable after making an arrest is a concern.”

‘You Are Going to Jail’

When police officer Bart Turek rounded the corner that day and saw Atwater and her children not wearing seat belts, he immediately pulled near and told her to stop the car. Atwater says Turek then jabbed his finger at her window and yelled, “You are going to jail!”

Turek had stopped Atwater previously, thinking her son had not been wearing a seat belt, but he had been mistaken and Turek had let her go.

“The first experience was uneventful — I didn’t challenge him at all,” says Atwater. “The biggest crime I’ve had in my life was a couple overdue books at the library. I’m a model citizen and this guy was nuts.”

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