Four liberal justices couldn�t stop the ruling majority from giving police officers their
much needed power to identify suspects and potential criminals by demanding to see their
identification. The Supreme Court ruled Monday that people do not have a constitutional
right to refuse to tell police their names. The 5-4 decision allows the government to arrest
and detain people who won't cooperate by revealing their identity.
The justices upheld a Nevada cattle rancher's misdemeanor conviction. He was arrested
after he told a deputy that he didn't have to reveal his name or show an ID during an
encounter on a rural road in 2000. Larry "Dudley" Hiibel was prosecuted, based on his
silence and fined $250. The Nevada Supreme Court correctly sided with police on a 4-3
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.
Privacy rights advocates (which would normally include myself when not fighting the
police) argued that the government could use this power to force people who have done
nothing wrong, other than catch the attention of police, to divulge information that may be
used for broad data base searches.
Nonsense. The identification requests are a routine part of detective work, and could be
useful in efforts to get information about terrorists. But privacy advocates asked the
justices to rule that forcing someone to give police their name violated a person's Fourth
Amendment protection from unreasonable searches and the Fifth Amendment right against
How is revealing your name to a police officer an unreasonable search? If you�re doing
something in public that catches the suspicious eye of a police officer, he or she should be
able to identify you in the possible event you may be wanted. As for the Fifth
Amendment, it hardly applies to a defendant before he�s arrested. If you run up to
a police officer and admit you just killed your neighbor, you haven�t just self-incriminated
yourself, you confessed to a crime! No Fifth Amendment protection here.
The public, for the most part, has a distorted understanding of the right to remain silent.
Surely those on the side of the defendant believe the ruling effectively killed a person�s
right to remain silent if arrested after refusing to tell his name. But the problem is, there
was never a right to remain silent! Only after you are arrested do you have the right to not
incriminate yourself. But by that time it doesn�t matter because you�ve already been
There�s no reason to fear revealing your name to the authorities...that is, unless you have
something to hide. In that case, you deserve to be caught and prosecuted. As for
upstanding citizens, a suspecting police officer would leave you alone after concluding
based on your information that there�s nothing to charge you for.
Cops have access to our public records on a daily basis and have had it ever since the
invention of the computer. Your license plate (novelty plate included) is a barcode for
police and their dashboard computers and it leads them directly to your immediate driving
record. License plate checks are the number one way police catch small-time criminals
with arrest warrants that get activated for failing to pay a fine or appear in court. With
assurance that an officer can rightfully demand your name and identification, he or she can
see if you�re wanted for felony charges or have any red flags.
Time and time again I tell my libertarian friends that if you have nothing to hide then
there�s no reason to get upset over this ruling. Recently I wrote on the 5th Circuit Court of
Appeals� ruling that police officers in Louisiana no longer need a search or arrest warrant
to conduct a brief search of your home or business. The court sided with police officers
who found illegal contraband in a home during the process of conducting a routine safety
sweep of a house they were given permission to enter. Libertarians and privacy rights
activists were stirred, but the truth is that these two rulings do two things; both positive.
One is that they make police work safer. And the second is that innocent, regular folks
like you and me have nothing to fear if a cop wants to protect himself by doing a
non-invasive sweep of your house after being granted permission to enter, and we have
nothing to sweat over if for whatever reason a police officer wants to know your name.
The four liberal judges hardly gave a reasonable dissenting opinion. "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," Justice John Paul
Stevens wrote in a dissent. Justices David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen
Breyer also disagreed with the ruling. One more time: "A name can provide the key to a
broad array of information about the person...� And in the current age we live in where
terrorism is most effective when it acts in secret, Justice Stevens� reason for dissent is a
better reason for support.