(adapted from the ACLU News, http://www.aclu.org)
In a narrow 5-4 ruling, on April 24 the US Supreme Court said that people stopped for minor offenses punishable only by a fine, such as not using seatbelts or jaywalking, can be subject to a full-scale police arrest including being handcuffed,booked,and jailed.
A divided court also made it harder to enforce the nation's civil rights laws, ruling that any recipients of federal funding, including states, schools and colleges, may not be sued for policies that have a discriminatory effect on blacks, Latinos or other minorities.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which filed friend-of-the-court briefs in both cases, called the rulings a blow to civil liberties and warned that the decisions may have dire consequences for the nation's people of color.
"In one fell swoop, the Court has both increased the potential for racial profiling and diminished 30 years of civil rights law designed to protect victims of discrimination," said Steven R. Shapiro, legal director of the ACLU.
At issue in the police arrest case, Atwater v. Lago Vista, No. 99-1948, was whether someone who is charged with a misdemeanor that is punishable only by a fine, not jail time, could be arrested and jailed prior to conviction at the sole discretion of a police officer.
The case involved a Texas "soccer mom" who is white; but in its legal brief, the ACLU warned that giving the police such discretionary authority too often represents an open invitation to racial profiling of African American, Latino and other minority motorists.
Indeed, noted Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, author of the dissenting opinion, "as the recent debate over racial profiling demonstrates all too clearly, a relatively minor traffic infraction may often serve as an excuse for stopping and harassing an individual."
Susan Herman, author of the ACLU brief and a professor at Brooklyn Law School, said that the case had offered the Justices an opportunity to address the critical question of whether there are any objective limitations on the power to arrest. But instead of setting much-needed boundaries on police authority, "the Court settled for no limits at all," she said.
The ACLU's legal brief in the Atwater case is online at http://www.aclu.org/court/atwater.html.