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A soccer mom's crusade for justice to protect citizens' rights

Until four years ago when Gail Atwater was arrested and taken to jail for not wearing a seat belt, the suburban mom thought protecting the guarantees under the U.S. Constitution was somebody else's responsibility.

"Now, I'm sadder but wiser because I realize how fragile those rights really are," Atwater said.

It has taken every dime _ and more _ that Atwater and her emergency-room physician husband have to take their case against the city of Lago Vista to the U.S. Supreme Court.

They had to sell their dream home in Lago Vista, a small town north of Austin, and borrow more than $100,000 from their parents to cover legal fees.

Gail Atwater had to shut down a bed-and-breakfast she operated in nearby Leander. Instead, the family moved into the former B&B.

"Even more than the financial sacrifice was the emotional energy the case took," said Atwater.

"It took everything we had as a family to make it this far."

In November, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear their case. If the justices decide in Atwater's favor, police officers across the country will not have the authority to haul people to jail for minor traffic violations unless there is a clear reason to do so.

On the day the justices agreed to hear the case, Atwater, her husband and her children _ Anya, now 9, and Mack, 7 _ were seated on the front row in the Supreme Court chambers.

While Gail and her husband, Mike, were thrilled, their children were more relieved than anyone when the court decided that Atwater vs. the City of Lago Vista would be one of the cases it would hear.

Gail wanted her children at the Supreme Court hearing because they were with her in March 1997 when she was arrested on the way home from soccer practice. They saw their mother handcuffed by a police officer and taken to jail.

In fact, the only reason her children, who also were not wearing seat belts, did not go to jail is that a couple of teenagers from their neighborhood ran to a friend's house for help. Atwater's friend came to the scene and volunteered to take the children.

"Do you remember the look in Elian Gonzalez's eyes the day the federal officers came and took him from his uncle's house? Well, that's how terrified my children looked that day," said Atwater. "Since my children had seen justice at its worst, I wanted them to see justice at its best."

Her initial reaction after her arrest, Atwater said, was to put the incident behind her as quickly as possible. After all, she knew she was wrong for not wearing a seat belt, and she was willing to pay what is normally a $50 fine for such an offense.

First, she went to city officials and asked them to revise the policy that allows a police officer to arrest someone for any traffic violation, no matter how minor. Instead of being outraged by the officer's behavior, she found that local officials believed he had done the right thing.

That's when she filed a lawsuit, which was dismissed in federal court in Austin. After that, the city of Lago Vista wanted a written apology from Atwater.

She refused and appealed her case to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, which eventually ruled against her. The majority opinion was written by Judge Emilio Garza, who is reportedly on President-elect George W. Bush's short list for nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"That's when the stakes got really high for us," said Atwater. "When we started, we were trying to curb the behavior of one police officer in our community. Now we realized that the 5th Circuit had given every officer in the country the power to make these kinds of arrests."

Now Atwater is waiting for the U.S. Supreme Court to issue its ruling in the case, which could come as soon as February. Even if the court rules against her, Atwater feels a tremendous burden has been lifted.

"As soon as they accepted our case, I felt validated," she said. "It was the win I needed."

+ Jan Jarboe Russell is a columnist for the San Antonio Express-News. +