Can You Refuse to Identify Yourself to Police?


Klaus With a K.

The story of actress Daniele Watts’ confrontation with police last week has sparked a raging debate in Los Angeles. Do you have the right, as Watts insisted, to refuse to identify yourself to cops? In situations like the one Watts found herself in last Thursday, in which a caller alleged to the police that she was having sex in a car in the middle of the day, the practical answer is … probably not.
Now, it’s a little complicated: The ACLU of Southern California is in Watts’ corner, saying you do have the right to refuse, while the union representing rank-and-file Los Angeles Police Department officers says you don’t have that right, not if you’re being detained for questioning.

No one is questioning whether cops have the right to randomly stop pedestrians and ask them to identify themselves. They don’t. (Being a motorist is a different legal matter that requires you to provide your license anytime an officer requests it.)
What we’re talking about here is a situation like Watts’, in which you’re stopped by police for the investigation of a specific report of a crime in which you loosely fit a witness’ description (been there, done that, by the way).
You can be detained for questioning without that resulting in arrest. However, during such a detention, the LAPD insists citizens have a legal obligation to identify themselves. That’s because they have reasonable suspicion you might be involved in a crime.
But ACLU staff attorney Peter Bibring says that you do not have to ID yourself to cops, even if they’re investigating a crime and believe you could be involved.
More on this debate over at the LA Weekly.