An officer observed the defendant violate a state seat belt law. The law is a misdemeanor, punishable only by a fine. The warrantless arrest of anyone violating this statute is expressly authorized by statute, but the police may issue a citation instead of making an arrest. The officer pulled the defendant over, verbally berated her, and handcuffed her. He placed the defendant in his squad car, and drove her to the local police station. Once there, she was searched incident to the arrest, and processed in the same manner as all other arrests.
Whether the officer acted unreasonably in arresting the defendant for a crime that only carried the possibility of a fine as a punishment?
No. The Fourth Amendment does not forbid a warrantless arrest for a minor criminal offense, such as a misdemeanor seatbelt violation punishable only by a fine.
In interpreting the Fourth Amendment, the Court considers the traditional protections against unreasonable searches and seizures that were provided by the common law at the time of the Constitution’s founding. The Court found the history of the common law conflicted in this area. As a result, it rejected the defendant’s request to create a new rule of constitutional law forbidding custodial arrest, even upon probable cause, when conviction could not ultimately carry any jail time. The Court has traditionally recognized that a responsible Fourth Amendment balance is not well served by standards requiring sensitive, case-by-case determinations of government need. Otherwise, every discretionary judgment in the field would be converted into an occasion for constitutional review.
532 U.S. 318, 121 S. Ct. 1536 (2001)