The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that if you live in a state where the law requires you to tell a cop your name, you have to do that. The decision sits on the razor’s edge between civil liberties and law enforcement, and the court’s 5-4 split reveals how difficult an issue it is.
Arizona, by the way, does not have one of those laws and the Tribune sees no big need for one. But the court, tilting in the direction of safety for police officers and the public, saw no need to wipe them off the books where they do exist.
For one thing, the court said, officers may ask for identification only when they have stopped someone for a legitimate reason, out of suspicion a crime may have occurred or could occur. The state laws in question do not allow police to randomly stop pedestrians and motorists with an ominous and threatening “papers, please” request.
Citing previous decisions, the majority opinion by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said “a law enforcement officer’s reasonable suspicion that a person may be involved in criminal activity permits the officer to stop the person for a brief time and take additional steps to investigate further.”
“Knowledge of identity may inform an officer that a suspect is wanted for another offense, or has a record of violence or mental disorder,” Kennedy wrote. “On the other hand, knowing identity may help clear a suspect and allow the police to concentrate their efforts elsewhere.”
It must be remembered that the citizen being questioned already is involved in a situation that got the officer’s legitimate attention. In those circumstances it is not unreasonable for an officer to want to know with whom he is dealing and the potential consequences.
Still, Kennedy’s decision fell short of addressing a key issue in the case. That issue is whether being forced to provide one’s name can of itself be construed as a violation of the Fifth Amendment’s right against being forced to incriminate oneself.
Kennedy’s opinion all but invites another case on the Fifth Amendment question. Someday soon one may emerge.
Meanwhile, the decision as it stands is one we can live with, as long as police recognize the circumstances wherein they may properly require identification. Beyond those circumstances, demanding even the most elementary information from citizens begins to smack of a police state.