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Supremes: Laws requiring self-identification OK

The U.S. Supreme Court narrowly upheld a state law requiring citizens to identify themselves upon request to police officers who have "reasonable suspicion that a person may be involved in criminal activity" (a lower standard than "probable cause," which is what is required for arrest). From the New York Times article [re-paragraphed]:

The rancher, Larry D. Hiibel argued that his Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure and his Fifth Amendment right against compelled self-incrimination were violated by the state law. Mr. Hiibel's cause was taken up by an array of groups concerned with privacy in an age when a name entered in an electronic database can provide a sometimes startling amount of personal information.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy's majority opinion rejected both constitutional arguments, at least as they applied to Mr. Hiibel. As a Fourth Amendment matter, Justice Kennedy said, the demand to identify oneself is a logical corollary to the circumstances of a valid police stop, as described by the court in a 1968 decision, Terry v. Ohio. That decision permits a police officer to briefly detain, question and conduct a pat-down search of a person whose behavior has given rise to "reasonable suspicion," short of the probable cause necessary for a formal arrest. Such an encounter is widely known as a "Terry stop."...

The deputy had responded to a telephone report of a man hitting a woman in the cab of a truck parked along a rural road. Arriving to investigate a possible domestic assault, the deputy found a man who turned out to be Mr. Hiibel standing outside the truck, with a young woman sitting inside the cab. She turned out to be his daughter.

Eleven times, the deputy asked Mr. Hiibel for identification, and 11 times, he refused to provide it. The incident was caught by a video camera on the deputy's car, and can be seen on Mr. Hiibel's Web site,, along with Mr. Hiibel's description of the events and the following description of him: "He lives a simple life, but he's his own man."

Eventually, Mr. Hiibel was arrested and charged with the misdemeanor of refusing to identify himself. He was convicted and fined $250. The Nevada Supreme Court upheld his conviction....

This provoked a stinging dissent from Justice John Paul Stevens, who said there was no basis for assuming that names were generally nonincriminating or would not usually furnish a "link in the chain of evidence." "Why else would an officer ask for it?" Justice Stevens said, adding, "Indeed, if we accept the predicate for the court's holding, the statute requires nothing more than a useless invasion of privacy."

In a separate dissenting opinion, Justice Stephen G. Breyer said that despite the lack of a formal precedent directly on the point, there was a "generation-old" understanding that people subjected to Terry stops were not required to answer any questions. There was no indication that this understanding "has significantly interfered with law enforcement," Justice Breyer said, and no reason to change it at this point. Further, he said, there was no way for "a police officer in the midst of a Terry stop" to know whether the situation was the ordinary one or the "special case where the majority reserves judgment."

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