Federal Court Upholds Overnight Jail Over $15 Seatbelt Ticket Federal appeals court rules woman can be jailed overnight over a $15, non-jailable seatbelt offense.
Amanda Cruz was adjusting her seatbelt at a traffic light in Hall County, Georgia on the evening of June 19, 2010. Little did she know that for doing so, she would have to spend the rest of the night behind bars. The Eleventh Circuit US Court of Appeals on Thursday ruled that her jailing was entirely appropriate.
Georgia State Trooper Andy Page had been behind Cruz at a traffic light at around 7:45pm. When she failed to pull the belt back across her chest before driving into the intersection, he pounced, ready to issue a $15 citation. During the stop, he asked for license and registration. During the routine records check, he saw that "Amanda Cruz" had an outstanding arrest warrant. The Cruz wanted for questioning was a 30-year-old red head with tattoos on her arms and legs. The Cruz at the stop light showed Trooper Page that her arms and legs were tattoo free. She was a full five inches shorter than the wanted woman, with dark brown hair and her license showed she was 32 years old.
Cruz protested that she was innocent, but Trooper Page decided to take her into custody anyway. At the Hall County Jail, Joshua Davidson booked Cruz in, then put her in a holding cell for an hour. Cruz was then brought back before Davidson and five other jail staff for questioning. They looked at the picture of the wanted woman, and the staff concluded Cruz was not the woman listed in the warrant. Cruz was held for the rest of the night until her mother arrived with a $120 bond so that she could be released over the $15 seatbelt charge, which carries no jail time in Georgia.
A state court eventually dismissed the seatbelt ticket, but Cruz was so infuriated at her treatment that she filed a lawsuit against Davidson for keeping her in jail without probable cause after it was clear she was not the woman listed in the warrant. The appellate court rejected her lawsuit, arguing there was no constitutional problem with detaining her over a parking ticket.
"Cruz notes that she was held overnight for a crime that carried no jail time and a maximum of a $15.00 fine," the Eleventh Circuit wrote in a per curiam decision. "The Supreme Court in Atwater v. City of Lago Vista held, however, that a police officer did not violate the Fourth Amendment when he effectuated a custodial arrest for a seatbelt violation that carried no jail time and a maximum $50.00 fine."
The three-judge panel found that the high court precedent was sufficient to throw out the lawsuit, citing Davidson's qualified immunity from prosecution.
"To the extent Cruz argues that her detention cannot be justified objectively because it was a minor offense or because her detention was not authorized under Georgia law, her argument fails," the court concluded. "There was probable cause to believe that Cruz committed a crime, namely a violation of the seatbelt law, and that alone is sufficient to justify her detention for the purposes of the Fourth Amendment."
A copy of the decision is available in a 50k PDF file at the source link below.