Date Posted to Site: 06/23/2004
WASHINGTON - A sharply divided Supreme Court ruled Monday that people who
refuse to give their names to police can be arrested, even if they've done
The court previously had said police may briefly detain people they suspect
of wrongdoing, without any proof. But until now, the justices had never held
that during those encounters a person must reveal their identity.
The court's 5-4 decision upholds laws in at least 21 states giving police
the right to ask people their name and jail those who don't cooperate. Law
enforcement officials say identification requests are a routine part of
Privacy advocates say the decision gives police too much power. Once
officers have a name, they can use computer databases to learn all kinds of
personal information about the person.
The loser in Monday's decision was Nevada cattle rancher Larry "Dudley"
Hiibel, who was arrested and convicted of a misdemeanor after he told a
deputy that he didn't have to give out his name or show an ID.
The encounter happened after someone called police to report arguing between
Hiibel and his daughter in a truck parked along a road. An officer asked him
11 times for his identification or his name.
Hiibel repeatedly refused, at one point saying, "If you've got something,
take me to jail" and "I don't want to talk. I've done nothing. I've broken
In fighting the arrest, Hiibel became an unlikely constitutional privacy
rights crusader. He wore a cowboy hat, boots and a bolo tie to the court
this year when justices heard arguments in his appeal.
"A Nevada cowboy courageously fought for his right to be left alone, but
lost," said his attorney, Harriet Cummings.
The court ruled that forcing someone to give police their name does not
violate their Fourth Amendment protection from unreasonable searches. The
court also said name requests do not violate the Fifth Amendment right
against self-incrimination, except in rare cases.
"One's identity is, by definition, unique; yet it is, in another sense, a
universal characteristic. Answering a request to disclose a name is likely
to be so insignificant in the scheme of things as to be incriminating only
in unusual circumstances," Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the
The ruling stopped short of allowing police to demand identification, like
driver's licenses, but Justice John Paul Stevens (news - web sites) said
requiring people to divulge their name still goes too far.
"A name can provide the key to a broad array of information about the
person, particularly in the hands of a police officer with access to a range
of law enforcement databases," he wrote in a dissent. Justices David H.
Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg (news - web sites) and Stephen Breyer (news -
web sites) also disagreed with the ruling.
Crime-fighting and justice groups had argued that a ruling the other way
would have protected terrorists and encouraged people to refuse to cooperate
"The constant danger of renewed terrorist activity places enormous pressure
on law enforcement to identify suspected terrorists before they strike,"
said Charles Hobson, an attorney with the Sacramento-based Criminal Justice
But Tim Lynch, an attorney with the libertarian-oriented think tank Cato
Institute, said the court "ruled that the government can turn a person's
silence into a criminal offense."
"Ordinary Americans will be hopelessly confused about when they can assert
their right to remain silent without being jailed like Mr. Hiibel," said
Lynch, who expects the ruling will lead more cities and states, and possibly
Congress, to consider laws like the one in Nevada.
Justices had been told that at least 20 states have similar laws to the
Nevada statute: Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Delaware, Florida,
Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Montana, Nebraska, New
Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Utah, Vermont,
The ruling was a follow up to a 1968 decision that said police may briefly
detain someone on reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing, without the stronger
standard of probable cause, to get more information. Justices said that
during such brief detentions, known as Terry stops after the 1968 ruling,
people must answer questions about their identities.
Marc Rotenberg, head of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said
America is different 36 years after the Terry decision. "In a modern era,
when the police get your identification, they are getting an extraordinary
look at your private life."
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