Can Refusing to Tell Police Who You Are Be a Crime?


The American tradition of liberty is such that citizens generally do not have to justify their existence by producing government-issued identity papers whenever ordered to do so. This is why moves to establish a national identity card have never gotten off the ground, the Christian Science Monitor reports.

But what happens when a police officer believes you might be involved in a crime and asks your name as part of the investigation? Do you have to answer?

That is the question before the US Supreme Court Monday, as the justices consider whether a Nevada law requiring suspects to identify themselves whenever requested by police violates constitutional protections of privacy and freedom from self-incrimination. The case is significant because it gives the court a chance to more closely define how deeply law-enforcement officials may intrude into private lives.

If the court establishes a bright-line rule barring police from forcing such disclosures, it will highlight a new focus by the justices on individual liberty. If, on the other hand, the court upholds the Nevada law, it could prompt other states and the federal government to adopt similar tactics amid heightened concern about possible terrorist activities within the US.

The case arises at a time when it has become virtually impossible to board a commercial airliner for a domestic US flight without first producing some form of government-issued ID.

Under Nevada law, a citizen must reveal his or her name to a police officer who has reasonable suspicion that the person might be involved in a crime. Even if the suspect is innocent, the mere act of refusing to identify oneself is – itself – a crime.

Analysts say the law creates a legal irony. If the police officer possessed enough evidence to place the suspect under arrest, the suspect would be given a Miranda warning that he or she had the right to remain silent. But if the police officer possessed only reasonable suspicion – not the higher standard of probable cause needed to justify an arrest – a suspect could be arrested and convicted merely for refusing to identify himself.


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