Another Victory for the Cops
By Scott Editor | Scott's Archive
June 22, 2004

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 vote.

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 self-incrimination.

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 booked.

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.

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