You can only be arrested for committing misdemeanors and felonies, right? A cop can’t arrest you for something as trivial as not wearing a seat belt or not having a valid form of identification…right? Well, unfortunately, wrong!
The sad and alarming answer is YES! According to the United States Supreme Court in Atwater v. City of Lago Vista, an officer who has probable cause to believe a crime has been committed, even a minor traffic violation, has the authority to arrest. What was the offense in question in that case? Driving without a seat belt, a misdemeanor punishable only by fine in Texas, the state the case arose out of.
Right now you may be thinking, “Hey, it’s a minor traffic violation, but in Texas it’s a misdemeanor, which makes sense, because everything is bigger in Texas. They could never do that in California where not wearing your seat belt is merely an infraction!” Well, here comes the California Court of Appeal to tell you just how wrong you are. Taking the above a step further, People v. McKay stated that so long as an officer has probable cause to believe that an individual has committed an infraction, the officer has the authority to arrest that individual. What crime did the defendant commit in McKay? Riding a bicycle in the wrong direction on a residential street. The story gets worse for Mr. McKay, as he was searched incident to arrest, and was found to have methamphetamine in his possession, which illustrates just how quickly encounters with law enforcement can spiral out of control. That means if an officer decides to arrest you for an infraction, you will be searched incident to that arrest, which may open up a whole host of new problems for you.
As if things could not get any worse, if you are cited for failing to produce adequate identification, pursuant to Vehicle Code §40302, the police not only have authority to search your person and arrest you, but if you are driving, they are also permitted to conduct a limited warrantless search of the interior of the vehicle, where such documentation would ordinarily be kept. In practice, that means a cop, at the very least, will tear apart your vehicle to search for your identification, should you fail to produce it. This may have some adverse consequences on your liberty if you have anything illicit in your glove box or center console, where such items are often kept. Even if you are playing on the right side of the law, and have nothing illegal on you or in your vehicle, if the officer is having a bad day, you may still find yourself in police custody for the underlying infraction violation.
What then is the takeaway from all this? Well, the obvious one is that the police can pretty much arrest you for anything, as long as the conduct violates a statute, even if it is an infraction punishable by fine only. Now, most police officers are not in the habit of arresting people for rolling through a stop sign, mostly a function of the time, resources and energy such arrests would require on a daily basis. However, it is important to be cognizant of the fact that law enforcement officers have the authority to arrest for minor infractions when you put yourself in situations where law enforcement officers are present i.e. bars, sporting events, clubs, etc. While it is unlikely you will be arrested for a minor infraction violation, if you give an officer a reason to exercise this authority, I’m sure he or she would be more than happy to oblige!