The Los Angeles Police Protective League provides the following as a public service for those whose understanding of the law regarding the necessity to provide identification to police comes from watching, or acting in, fictional police dramas. Instead, they might want to rely on the considered advice of legal professionals, such as the prosecutors at the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office. Those prosecutors have opined that when you are detained by a police officer, you must provide identification when asked to do so, or face arrest for obstructing or delaying a police officer.
The Supreme Court of the United States has upheld the requirement to provide identification to an officer during a detention. In 2004, in Hiibel v. Sixth Judicial District of Humboldt County, the court ruled on the case of a man detained by the police who “refused to identify himself only because he thought his name was none of the officer’s business.” The Supreme Court disagreed, ruling a police officer has a right to request identification during a valid detention. The court ruled that obtaining identification was a minimal intrusion on a suspect’s privacy, with the need for law enforcement to quickly dispel suspicion that an individual is engaged in criminal activity, justifying the requirement a suspect is required to disclose his or her name. As a California Appellate Court summed up, “where there is a right to detain, there is a companion right to request and obtain the detainee’s identification.”
What constitutes a lawful detention is also clearly established law for several decades. As the United States Supreme Court ruled in United States v. Sokolow, a person may be detained if there is reasonable suspicion that the detainee may be involved in criminal activity. What is reasonable suspicion is a level of justification considerably less than probable cause for an arrest, and it does not matter that there might be a possible innocent explanation of the activity witnessed by the police officer.
We remind those who rely on fictional police dramas as the basis of their refusal to identify themselves during a lawful detention, that they should know the friendly prosecutors at the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office have said, while failure to identify oneself cannot, on its own, justify an arrest, nothing in United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit case law prohibits officers from asking for, or even demanding, a suspect's identification. Instead, Ninth Circuit cases, as well as those of the United States Supreme Court, suggest that determining a suspect’s identity is an important aspect of police authority. For example, one of the most common investigative techniques used in investigatory stops is interrogation, which may include both a request for identification and inquiry concerning the suspicious conduct of the person detained. The Alameda District Attorney’s Office have opined that a detained person’s refusal to furnish written identification if they have it, or to walk away from an officer requesting identification, is a violation of Penal Code § 148(a)(1). That is the Penal Code section that makes it unlawful to willfully delay or obstruct an officer in the performance of his duties. As a California Appellate court ruled, to allow otherwise and to “accept the contention that the officer can stop the suspect and request identification, but that the suspect can turn right around and refuse to provide it, would reduce the authority of the officer… to identify a person lawfully stopped by him to a mere fiction.”
We are hopeful the advice of these prosecutors — the ones who decide whether criminal charges are filed — will avoid future encounters with individuals whose erroneous understanding of their “rights” end up leading to either their arrest, or a detention that is prolonged past the few minutes that would have been necessary to ascertain their ID and send them on their way.
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