Civil Liberties

Cops Can Bust You for Even Minor Offenses in Texas (and Elsewhere)


Reason 24/7

In the midst of much extremely justified fuss about the abuse of official power at the federal level, don't forget that state and local officials are at least as likely to wipe certain parts of their anatomy with your civil liberties as are their counterparts in D.C. Today's example comes from Texas, where police are empowered to arrest people and haul them in, even for minor violations that aren't penalized by time behind bars.


In Texas, people can be arrested for just about anything. In fact, speeding is one of just two crimes that can't get you arrested; the other is having an open container.

[Don] Elmer was arrested, not for speeding but for failing to wear his seat belt.

When the judge called his case, "he just bust out laughing," Elmer said. "He was like, 'He must have really not liked you.'"

Elmer lost his job, and he had to pay to get his car out of the tow yard.

He can thank Gov. Rick Perry and the U.S. Supreme Court for the nearly unlimited power that Texas law enforcement officers have to arrest anyone, even for crimes such as busted tail lights and unsafe lane changes not punishable by jail time.

The expansive arrest powers come, in part, from a 2001 U.S. Supreme Court case, Atwater v. Lago Vista, in which America's solons of all things constitutional said it was A-OK to cuff people for such penny-ante offenses as … well … not wearing a seatbelt. Texas cops, and police elsewhere, took the decision to heart. As you might expect, such wide-ranging powers are wielded with a great deal of personal discretion. Pissing off a cop during a routine traffic stop — or any other time — can be taken as an invitation to put on the handcuffs, for instance. The threat of arrest can also be used to extract compliance.

Of course, most cops are uninterested in jailing seat-belt violators – they'd be the laughingstock of their departments if they did it often. But Texas police routinely use that arrest authority to coerce people into surrendering their Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches.

Since the 2001 ruling, Texas lawmakers have attempted, three times, to rein-in police powers even a little. Governor Rick Perry vetoed the legislation each time. 

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