Bud Kennedy

Under Texas law, a lane change can lead to jail, and worse

In 1997, Gail Atwater was arrested and jailed for driving without her seatbelt.
In 1997, Gail Atwater was arrested and jailed for driving without her seatbelt. Austin American-Statesman

Yes, you can go to jail in Texas over a lane change.

No matter what you say or don’t say, the law can lock you up for any offense. (Except two: speeding, or an open alcohol container.)

An Austin mother fought it to the U.S. Supreme Court. She lost.

“I wonder how many police encounters today are rooted in that decision?” asked Sherman lawyer Pamela McGraw, part of the legal team that represented a Lago Vista mother handcuffed and jailed in 1997 for lack of a seat belt.

The recent arrest, negligent jail treatment and death of Waller County motorist Sandra Bland began when a trooper stopped her over not signaling a lane change. In Bland’s case, she argued and wound up accused of assault.

“But was the lane change the only reason for removing her from the vehicle?” McGraw asked.

“Not one justice in any court ever condoned arresting anyone on a traffic offense. But I see it all the time.”

By a 5-4 vote in 2001, the Supreme Court upheld the arrest of Gail Atwater, 45, stopped by Lago Vista police driving slowly along the roadside helping children look for a lost stick-on ornament from the Austin Ice Bats hockey team.

Justice David Souter wrote in the majority opinion that any arrest involving a violation is not “unreasonable” search or seizure.

University of Texas Law School professor Michael F. Sturley was another of Atwater’s lawyers.

“Here was a mother and her kids looking for a toy, and she got thrown in jail,” Sturley said.

“Police experts say the last thing you want is to arrest someone over a traffic stop. It’s expensive to jail people, takes officers away from duty and imposes a lot of costs on the system. But police say it’s a tool when they want to throw someone in jail.”

In Texas, police don’t need a good reason. Just a reason.

Bud Kennedy’s column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. 817-390-7538

Twitter: @BudKennedy

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