Doing Time for Misdemeanor Crimes

On Tuesday, April 24, the Supreme Court upheld the strength of the Fourth Amendment by declaring that police may arrest individuals for minor traffic offenses or other misdemeanors, usually punished only by a fine. Affected infractions include unbuckled seat belts, jaywalking and public littering.

Laura Chao

The issue was raised when Gail Atwater, an upstanding Texan mother, was arrested for riding in her truck while neither she nor her two small children wore safety belts. At issue is the power and authority of police offers enforcing laws and the individual rights of those breaking them.

While even the court admitted that Atwater probably should not have been arrested for her minor infraction, Justice David Souter declared that disallowing such police actions would “”turn many ordinary arrests into occasions for constitutional litigation.”” The Fourth Amendment is in place to allow police officers a framework to properly perform their duties, not to protect people who get arrested and don’t like it.

Let us take as an example our responsible, upstanding Atwater, who decided that it was not necessary to buckle up her 3-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter. After her arrest, Atwater filed a lawsuit against the police officer that arrested her, the city and the police chief, alleging they had violated her constitutional rights.

It has become clear that breaking the law is not something to be taken seriously, and that laws are simply in place to provide opportunities for frivolous lawsuits. We have a case of an irresponsible mother not looking after her children — even putting her children’s lives in danger — and now she is the victim?

I must admit that the public outcry over this decision in favor of Atwater does not surprise me. The American Civil Liberties Union publicly announced that “”the Court has turned back the clock on three decades of civil rights enforcement.”” The current popular liberal consensus (what we are supposed to think) tells us that regardless of our actions, our civil liberties and rights must be upheld at all costs. In the end, what matters most is not justice, and it is certainly not the safety of those around us. Instead, the most self-serving and outright selfish route must be chosen. The well-being of Atwater’s children has been all but ignored as the rights of an irresponsible, law-breaking mother have taken center stage.

Unfortunately, this type of incident is all too common, and it is high time the Court took action to prevent such lawsuits, as a seemingly obvious issue has been left out of the discussion: lawlessness.

Laws are put in place by governments to protect its citizens and their personal property. Traffic laws such as seat belt requirements, jaywalking and other seemingly insignificant laws are in place to protect, not to inhibit. If the breaking of these laws is ignored, what then is the point of having the law in the first place? Just as police officers do not have the right to discriminate when making arrests, we as citizens do not have the right to pick and choose which infractions we get caught for. When we break laws, we voluntarily place ourselves at the mercy of the law enforcement authorities.

Why, then, has it become so popular to seek rewards for stupidity and the blatant disregard for the very laws that protect us? While I place a great deal of blame on the legal system for tolerating such ridiculous lawsuits, that is a subject for another time. A more important point is the fact that this case even made it to court, and what that shows about our society as a whole. I see this as a painful example of overly opportunistic and self-interested people fueled by greed and getting their way because no one will stand up for those who choose to actually obey the law.

What ever happened to consequences? What happened to taking responsibility for our actions and teaching our children that breaking the rules carries with it punishments, end of story? If asked what they have learned from their mother’s situation, it seems likely that Atwater’s children would respond, “”Mommy broke the rules, so she whined. And lots of people think it doesn’t matter that she broke the rules, just that she whines a lot.”” I don’t see this as a very positive example to set for children.

Many of us were taught long ago that if you break the rules, you will get in trouble. Today, I see that this simple cause-and-effect relationship has lost its place in America. Instances such as the Atwater case, and others where the guilty have been hailed as heroes, prove that breaking laws is now a secondary offense to actually enforcing them.

If we are to solve the criminal problems in this country, we must first reaffirm the principle that breaking laws carries a punishment. It may not always be the most convenient punishment, and it may not always be the nicest and the friendliest one. The simple answer is that if you get caught breaking a law, the rules do apply to you. By protecting police officers’ power to protect the innocent, the Supreme Court has not sacrificed civil liberties, but has instead acted for the well-being of many and not the benefit of one.