Jun 172015

It’s been awhile since my last post– we’ve been working on adding content to the website– and recently, a topic has been coming up in a spate of cases and consultations. The spike in discussions around this topic here in the office causes me to think it might be a good time to address this issue more generally.

The question is, when you are out in a public place, can the police require you to show them identification?

Can the police require me to show my identification?

First of all, let’s be clear what we’re discussing here. The issue is when you are in a public place– not in your own home or on your own property; in those places, the police are clearly not allowed to simply walk in and demand identification. It’s also clear that when you are driving a car or operating a motor vehicle, you can be required to show a police officer your license, and naturally, by doing so, you identify yourself. Even if you think you were pulled over or stopped for no reason, you really do need to show the officer your license and registration. The time to deal with the bogus reasons for stopping you is later.

But if you’re out and about in public, minding your own business, can an officer simply approach you and require you to show identification? The answer is NO, and that’s not new– it’s been the same answer for years, actually. But as with any legal question, the answer isn’t really quite that simple.

You May Respectfully Decline

While an officer is not allowed to require you to show identification, the officer is allowed to ask you for it, even if he or she has no reason whatsoever. The courts have consistently ruled  that an officer simply walking up to a random person and asking to see identification falls under the category of a “voluntary” or “consensual” encounter (which clearly shows how few judges have ever been hassled by the police). Now, sure, if you’re the citizen being asked for identification for no reason, you might not quite feel the same way about it; you might understandably feel like you’re being forced to give over your identification. But you ARE allowed to simply say “respectfully, no, I decline,” and then walk away. If the officer has some other basis for stopping you, he or she probably will. If they were really just on a ‘fishing expedition,’ so to speak, then they are simply not allowed to do so.

Practically speaking, of course, there’s often a difference between what the law tells police officers they are allowed to do and what they might actually do in a given situation. In my experience it happens quite often that officers simply don’t know this rule, or else, don’t care. Most officers are true professionals and will react appropriately if you simply refuse identification and walk away, but then again, those officers are less likely to be the ones randomly stopping citizens and demanding identification in the first place. Our office recommends you be aware of certain basic strategies to protect yourself against police misconduct if you decide to assert your constitutional right not to participate in a “voluntary” request for identification. Those strategies, including a very promising new bit of technology, will be discussed in the next post.

 If you or someone you love was involved in an incident where the police demanded identification for no reason, and you/your loved one have subsequently been charged with a crime (such as “resisting, obstructing or delaying an executive officer“), please give us a call anytime at 310-633-4612 for a free consultation.


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