The Supreme Court appeared perplexed yesterday over what to do about a Nevada rancher’s refusal to tell a deputy sheriff his name. “A name itself is a neutral fact” that is neither incriminating nor an undue invasion of privacy, Conrad Hafen, Nevada’s senior deputy attorney general, told the court, the New York Times reported. Attorneys for Larry D. Hiibel, who is appealing his conviction, argued that a Nevada law requiring disclosure of a suspect’s name is an illegal search under the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment and compelled self-incrimination in violation of the Fifth Amendment.
Standing by his pick-up truck on a road, Hiibel was approached by a deputy sheriff four years ago who was investigating a motorist’s report that a man in the truck had been hitting a woman. Mr. Hiibel’s adult daughter was in the cab of the truck .
A 1968 Supreme Court case, Terry v. Ohio, gave police the authority to detain, question and conduct a pat-down search of someone whose activities suggested “reasonable suspicion,” short of probable cause for a formal arrest. Robert Dolan, Nevada’s deputy public defender, told the court that the deputy “certainly had the right to ask” Hiibel for his name, but “equally so, Mr. Hiibel had the right not to respond.”
The state should not be permitted to criminalize silence or to “extract data from a person,” Dolan said. Justice Stephen G. Breyer appeared to agree, suggesting a rule that a citizen does not have to answer police. “Everyone can understand that,” Justice Breyer said, adding, “Why complicate this thing?”
If disclosing names were required, Dolan said, “the government could require name tags.” Civil liberties groups warned that a rejection of Hiibel’s claim to privacy could open the door to such measures as national identification cards. One group, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said that government databases were now of such “extraordinary scope” that “systems of mass public surveillance” could result from a ruling that authorized “coerced disclosure of identity.” Said Justice John Paul Stevens: “We’re all concerned about national ID cards and all that kind of stuff.”