If I Carry an ID, Do I Have to Identify Myself?

If I Carry an ID, Do I Have to Identify Myself?

Last updated: June 2009

The following questions were submitted to John Roska, an attorney/writer whose weekly newspaper column, "Q&A: The Law," runs in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Illinois Edition) and the Champaign News Gazette. This article was published on August 20, 2008.

Q:  In a recent column, you said there’s no law that requires you to carry any kind of ID card with you. If I do carry an ID, do I have to show it if the police ask for it? And if I don’t have to show an ID, can I refuse to identify myself?

A:  As the previous column explained, you cannot be forced to show an ID. There is no state or domestic passport law. 

You can, however, be required to identify yourself. That is only if you are in a public place and the police think you are engaged in criminal activity.  

Remember: it’s different if you’re driving. Drivers must carry a license, and show it upon request.

The Illinois law that applies is an example of a “stop & identify” law. About half the states have some type of stop & identify law.

Ours says: “A peace officer, after having identified himself as a peace officer, may stop any person in a public place for a reasonable period of time when the officer reasonably infers from the circumstances that the person is committing, is about to commit or has committed an offense.” 

In that situation, the police “may demand the name and address of the person and an explanation of his actions.”

The past, present, or future “offense” that the police must suspect you of is defined as “a violation of any penal statute of this State.” That can be any crime. In order to arrest you, police need "probable cause." 

The stop & identify law traces back to a 1968 U.S. Supreme Court case that says police can stop you if they have a “reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, based on articulable facts.” That is now known as a “Terry stop,” immortalizing John Terry, who lost his argument that the brief stop that revealed a “fully loaded automatic” violated his Fourth Amendment right “to be free . . . against unreasonable searches and seizures.”

So, if a police officer “reasonably infers from the circumstances” that you’re committing, about to commit, or have committed some crime, you can be stopped in a public place.  

Only then can police ask for your name and address. According to a recent U.S. Supreme Court case, you only have to give your name. In that 2004 case, Mr. Hiibel wouldn’t give his name, and was fined $250 for obstructing justice. (You can watch the police video of his refusal at:  papersplease.org/hiibel). 

The Supreme Court said: “A state law requiring a suspect to disclose his name in the course of a valid Terry stop is consistent with Fourth Amendment prohibitions against unreasonable searches and seizures.”

You can, of course, provide more information, and even show an ID. Many would say that is best, because things will go more smoothly. But others, and not just self-styled “cowboys” like Mr. Hiibel, believe it is unwarranted government intrusion.

When can you refuse to give your name? When you are not in a public place. A recent case said a front porch is not a public place. Or, when the police are just making conversation, and do not reasonably suspect you of criminal activity. Unfortunately, though, you can’t read a police officer’s mind.  But do not defy the police based on something you read in a newspaper column. Talk to your own lawyer first.

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