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Little effect expected from ruling on arrests

[04/25/01] The U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allows law enforcement officers to take violators into custody for minor traffic offenses will not change how things are done in Mississippi and Warren County.

The 5-4 ruling made by the Supreme Court Tuesday found that a Texas woman’s Constitutional rights were not violated when she was handcuffed and jailed after authorities pulled her over for failure to wear a seat belt.

She claimed her Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable government seizure was violated. The closely divided court disagreed.

The ruling just upheld what most officers are already allowed to do, Warren County Sheriff Martin Pace said.

“If an officer has a legitimate reason, it is clearly the officer’s discretion to give a citation or to make an arrest,” Pace said. He said it is not normal practice in Warren County to arrest someone for traffic violations, but it is and has always been within the officer’s rights to do so.

However, some people believe the Supreme Court’s ruling may create a potential for abuse on the part of law enforcement.

“We have fine law enforcement here, but there is a potential for abuse,” state Sen. Mike Chaney, R- Vicksburg, said. Chaney said knowing that authorities have the right to place someone under arrest for a minor violation may make a mandatory seat belt law not such a good idea.

Mississippi law requires that seat belts be worn by drivers and passengers at all times and first offenses are punishable by a $25 fine. A mandatory seat belt law would allow officers to pull people over for not wearing a seat belt, but current laws regard failure to wear a seat belt as a secondary offense meaning that a person can be cited for failure to wear a seat belt only after they have been stopped for another primary violation.

Wayne Snuggs of the Mississippi Attorney General’s Office said state seat belt laws could not be changed by the Supreme Court ruling.

Pace also said the secondary offense rule regarding seat belt laws in the state won’t have an effect on how law enforcement officers are allowed to handle seat belt violations.

“Driving without a seat belt does not constitute a probable cause to make a stop here,” Pace said.