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 can’t be required to show an ID.  There’s no internal or domestic passport law. 

You can, however, be required to identify yourself—but only if the police think you’re engaged in criminal activity.  And then, only if you’re in a public place. 

And please take note:  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 what’s known as a “stop & identify” law.  About half the states apparently 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.”  Basically, that means any crime.

This law traces directly back to a 1968 U.S. Supreme Court case that said while the police need “probable cause” to arrest you, they can stop you if they have a “reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, based on articulable facts.”  That’s 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. 

The police can then ask you 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’s best, simply because things will go more smoothly.  But others, and not just self-styled “cowboys” like Mr. Hiibel, may think that’s unwarranted government intrusion.

When could you refuse to give your name?  When you’re not in a public place—one case says a front porch isn’t.  Or, when the police are just making conversation, and don’t reasonably suspect you of criminal activity.  Unfortunately, though, you can’t read a police officer’s mind.  And if you’re going to defy the police, don’t do it because of something you’ve read in a newspaper column.  Talk to your own lawyer first.

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