It was one of those sultry summer nights when the temperature drops below 100, but just far enough to tease you and not far enough to cool the interior of a car very much.

Bill Carter was working the night shift as manager of a Jumbo Food Store in Annandale. At about 9:30 p.m., a customer came up to him and reported that a little boy, perhaps 6 months old, was locked in a car in the parking lot.

For the next hour, Carter made announcements over the store's loudspeaker. He asked other stores in the shopping center to do the same. But no parent came forward.

Finally, because he could see that the boy was sweating and flushed, Carter and Jumbo's security guard jimmied the door of the car with a coat hanger and lifted the boy out. Then they called the Fairfax County police.

But just before the policeman arrived, the boy's mother walked up to the car with her arms full of groceries, as if she didn't have a care in the world. She was a Southeast Asian and she explained to Carter that because her English wasn't very good, she hadn't understood his public-address announcements. She apologized for inconveniencing everybody, got in her car with her son and drove off.

Furious, Carter demanded that the policeman take some action against the mother. But the policeman said he couldn't.

"He told me, 'If it had been a dog or a cat, I could have called the ASPCA,' " Carter said. "But he said that in this case, because he hadn't seen the child actually locked inside the car himself, there was nothing he could do. It was a private, family matter."

I'm furious as Carter--not at the police, who are only doing their jobs, but at a legal system that permits a mother to walk away from a serious case of negligence without so much as a warning. The law does permit a Bill Carter to swear out a warrant in a case like this, and Carter says he may do so. But the only effect of that will be to make the paper companies richer.

What should have happened in the Jumbo parking lot is what used to happen in the old days of cops-on-the-beat. The officer would at least have given the mother an extended piece of his mind. And even though he hadn't witnessed the negligence himself, the officer would have taken a store manager's word for it and made an arrest.

Now, of course, police officers are scared to death to step into a situation like this for fear that they or their department will be sued, or an arrest will be overturned, or unfavorable publicity will be generated. I say nonsense. If arresting a mother is what it takes to drive home the point that children should not be locked in mobile ovens on summer nights, what are we waiting for.