05/07/04 — Handcuffed: Did 97-year-old woman pose a threat to police?

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Handcuffed: Did 97-year-old woman pose a threat to police?

Harriette Kelton — age 97 — lives down in Highland Park, Texas. She is a retired school teacher, attends church regularly and is active in community affairs. She also lives alone and cooks her own meals except when she goes out to lunch.

Mrs. Kelton also drives her own car. And that’s what got her in trouble with the law recently.

An alert police officer noticed that her inspection sticker had expired. He dutifully pulled her over, only to learn that her vehicle registration also was expired. The officer then determined that she had failed to pay a traffic ticket and, consequently, a warrant had been issued for her arrest!

The officer placed her in handcuffs and took her to jail. She remained in custody for around two hours before her lawyer arrived and she was released under her own recognizance.

Police say they had no choice in the matter since warrants begin with “You are hereby commanded to arrest.”

But Mrs. Kelton’s son, a Baylor University Medical Center surgeon, complained that police could have exercised a modicum of judgment. Another son, a judge, declined comment.

Perhaps the wording of such warrants technically calls for placing someone “under arrest” and that this requires ’cuffing them.

But if our laws allow no latitude for judgment on the part of arresting officers, this case cries out for a need to change the laws.

Certainly it would not be inappropriate to let officers make a judgment on whether the accused poses a risk of resisting or escaping. And the responsibility of any error in judgment would, of course, guide the officer’s decisions.

Many in our own state must have been surprised to see former Commissioner of Agriculture Meg Scott Phipps placed in handcuffs and leg irons as she was led to and from court and the jail. Mrs. Phipps was far from 97 years of age. But there isn’t a soul in this state who could entertain the notion that she might try to take off and outrun the police.

Published in Editorials on May 7, 2004 11:22 AM