SCOTUS: Failure to Reveal Identity Can Be a Crime

by TChris

Privacy -- freedom from unwarranted governmental intrusion into our lives -- is one of the most important values underlying the U.S. Constitution. That value took a big hit today as the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that an individual can be criminally prosecuted for refusing to reveal his or her identity to the police upon demand -- at least if the demanding officer has reason to suspect that criminal mischief is afoot.

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.

The ruling arose in the context of a Terry stop -- a (supposedly brief) detention for the purpose of investigating suspected criminal behavior. The police are required to have an objectively reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing before making a Terry stop, but experience shows that officers conjure up all sorts of reasons for demanding that individuals halt and answer their questions. The detained persons have the right not to incriminate themselves, but as of today, they don't have the right to refuse to identify themselves -- except in those states that have independently protected that right as a matter of state law.

Writing for the majority, Justice Kennedy said that a requirement to identify oneself is insignificant in the context of a Terry stop. Not so.

Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said America is different 36 years after the Terry decision. "In a modern era, when the police get your identification, they are getting an extraordinary look at your private life." He said the ruling for Nevada "opens the door to what could become a routine fishing expedition among government databases," after police stop innocent people.

Will this decision be the precursor to a national requirement that we all carry identity papers, producable upon demand by law enforcement officers? Look for the more extreme members of Congress to use this decision as a justification for "identity checks" as a way to protect us from terrorism -- at the expense of our national values.

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