Supreme Court Ruling: Real Time for Little Crime


WASHINGTON, D.C., April 25—The Supreme Court’s sanctioning yesterday for the police practice of arrest, handcuffing, and jailing people for minor civil defenses like driving without a seatbelt will have an astounding effect on the ordinary citizen. The justices ruled the practice is permitted under the Fourth Amendment, which is supposed to protect people against unreasonable search and seizure.

In 1997, a special NAACP task force obtained Washington, D.C., arrest figures, normally kept secret, from a friendly court source. The NAACP then compared the statistics from one quarter in 1996 to those from the same quarter the next year, finding that cops had doubled the lockup rate for minor crimes. The analysis revealed that 46 percent of all traffic stops resulted either in outright arrest or in citations that also involved arrest. An amazing 22 percent of all lockups stemmed from traffic stops.

The NAACP results were first reported by Washington community activist Sam Smith, in his Progressive Review. Smith says the tallies indicate “a D.C. citizen had a one in 13 chance of being put in jail over the course of one year. And a D.C. motorist had one chance in 33 of going to jail for a traffic violation over a one-year period.”

Since Washington is an overwhelmingly black city, many of these arrests are made on black people. But whites get caught too, the most recent incident involving a white federal intelligence officer who was arrested, handcuffed, and thrown in jail, Smith reports. His offense? Being a few days late in renewing his license registration.