Published on Thursday, May 10, 2001 in the Chicago Tribune
Hey, All of You Petty Criminals, Now You're Going Straight to Jail
by Molly Ivins
If you're one of those right-wing Goldwaterites who still worries about the
government eroding our fundamental freedoms, you're absolutely right. And the
latest example is a colossal stinker of a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.
You can now get hauled off to jail, booked, printed and held for 48 hours for a seatbelt violation, not to mention dog-off-leash, spitting-on-sidewalk and aggravated mopery. Should you have an encounter with a cop having a bad day, you can kiss your freedom farewell. What were they thinking?
Why the court hasn't figured out by now it should never take cases out of Texas is beyond me. It keeps taking these cases out of the Cowboy Gulag under the impression that it's dealing with some normal prison system. Disaster results, as in the case of Johnny Paul Penry, the mentally disabled guy we're still trying to execute because the state forgot it had, like, sort of failed to mention his condition to the jury.
This time it wasn't even a case out of the Gulag: It was seat-belt violation in a sleepy suburb of Austin called Lago Vista, on Lake Travis. Here, one fateful day in 1997, Gail Atwater was driving her two children, ages 2 and 5, home from soccer practice when they were all busted for driving without seatbelts. Fine for same in Texas is $25 to $50.
Nevertheless, the police officer took Atwater--leaving the two kids in the car, the seat-beltless little outlaws--down to the hoosegow, and there put her through the procedure that has, until this astounding decision, been reserved for those accused at least of a serious misdemeanor.
Congratulations: You now live in a country where you can be jailed for 48 hours and held for bond for over six times the maximum fine on any charge, including the dread underinflated tires.
The court majority cheerfully admitted Atwater was subjected to "gratuitous humiliations" and "pointless indignity" before finding her fate highly constitutional.
"This is one of the scariest decisions to come down in a long time, a horrendous decision," said Ira Glasser, retiring director of the American Civil Liberties Union and a man not much given to overstatement.
"The real danger here is the enhancement of police discretion at the precise moment when abuses of discretion are finally on the national agenda," Glasser continued. "To take this particular moment when the whole business is now so rampant and out of control. . . . There has never been a time in this country when abuses of discretion were not racially skewed: This decision is not going to affect suburban soccer moms. Nobody drives a car without committing some violation-- over 30 in a zone, tailpipe, drifting over a lane line, something. Ten states specifically prohibit jail time for fine-violations, but this decision means we have to try to replicate that in another 40, which is incredibly labor-intensive work."
The good libertarians at the Cato Institute are equally outraged by the decision (we might get a great triple alliance on this one--civil libertarians, right-wing libertarians and the National Rifle Association, it being full of people who are forever worried about the erosion of constitutional rights). Roger Pilon, vice president of Cato said, "The tragedy is there has been no response from the `respectable,' `mainstream' press on this. Just an eerie silence."
I believe I can explain that silence. With a few noble exception, the Washington press corps no longer covers the effects of government policy on people's lives: It knows only how to cover the politics of policy. And the politics of this decision are confusing, ergo, silence. The decision was written by Justice David Souter, whom conservatives like to pretend is a liberal, at the head of the usual suspects in the conservative majority.
There are no actual liberals on the court, and haven't been since the passing of William Brennan and Thurgood Marshall, but the conservative bloc often claims to stand for constitutional fundamentalism and "original intent." The splendid dissent in the case was written by the clearly conservative Sandra Day O'Connor, and is, according to Linda Greenhouse, veteran court reporter for The New York Times, probably the best thing O'Connor has ever written. That old Goldwater libertarian streak comes through.
The best guess about Souter's odd position is that he comes from a small town in New Hampshire and probably knows Officer Friendly personally. In the midst of the controversy over racial profiling, he wrote in his decision, "There is simply is no evidence of widespread abuse of minor-offense arrest authority." The man has obviously never been to Texas, much less to one of the hellholes that pass for jails in the cities of this state. Five out of nine Supreme Court justices are not just out to lunch, they're out to all meals.
The 4th Amendment to the Constitution states, "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable search and seizures shall not be violated."
Copyright 2001 Chicago Tribune