Justices will consider right to withhold name from police

Supreme Court takes case of Nev. man arrested for refusing to identify self

October 21, 2003|By David G. Savage | David G. Savage,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court said yesterday that it would consider creating a new right to remain silent - this time for people who are stopped, but not arrested, by police.

A Nevada man who was standing along a roadway when an officer approached him will get a hearing to decide a basic legal question: Does the Constitution give a person the right to refuse to identify himself to police?

Typically, a motorist stopped by police must show a driver's license. Similarly, passengers at an airport or individuals visiting a government office building must show identification.

But the law is not clear on whether others, including ordinary pedestrians, must identify themselves to police.

"It is inimical to a free society that mere silence can lead to imprisonment," said a lawyer for Larry Hiibel, the Nevada ranch hand who refused to give his name.

A deputy sheriff patrolling near Winnemucca, Nev., responded to a call that the driver of a pickup truck was seen hitting a woman in the passenger's seat. The deputy spotted Hiibel standing next to a GMC truck similar to the one described.

When asked repeatedly for his identity, Hiibel refused. Based on Hiibel's manner, the deputy suspected that the man was intoxicated and might have struck the passenger, who was his adult daughter.

The deputy arrested Hiibel for resisting a police officer and obstructing an investigation by refusing to give his name. He was not charged with any other offense.

The Nevada Supreme Court upheld Hiibel's conviction and a $250 fine.

The court's majority said officers, as well as law-abiding citizens, would be placed in danger if police could not require people behaving suspiciously to identify themselves.

"The suspect may be a felon or wanted for an outstanding arrest warrant. Perhaps that person is a sex offender," then-Chief Justice Cliff Young wrote.

"More importantly, we are at war against enemies who operate with concealed identities, and the dangers that we face as a nation are unparalleled."

However, in an appeal to the Supreme Court, Hiibel's public defender, James Logan Jr., pointed out that the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had taken the opposite view.

"Compelling an individual to identify himself violates the Fourth Amendment" and its ban on unreasonable searches and seizures, the circuit court said last year, unless officers have enough evidence to arrest the suspect.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court announced that it would hear the Hiibel case to decide whether the Constitution bars the police "from compelling people to identify themselves during a police investigation" if the officers do not have "probable cause" to make an arrest.

The justices said they would consider both the Fourth Amendment's limit on "unreasonable seizures" and the Fifth Amendment's right against self-incrimination.

Conrad Hafen, a deputy attorney general for Nevada, said he was pleased that the high court would resolve the matter.

"Our officers have been caught between a rock and a hard place. Our state court says you can arrest someone who refused to identify himself, but the federal court says you can be sued if you do that," he said.

"We certainly think it is reasonable for an officer to ask a person to identify himself. And allowing an individual to withhold his name will make it much more difficult to investigate a suspicious person," Hafen said.

If officers cannot obtain a person's name, they might go ahead and arrest the suspect and take him to jail, he said.

The court also agreed yesterday to consider whether judges alone can tack on additional prison time or whether a jury must make that call.

The court will consider the case of Ralph Howard Blakely Jr., a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic convicted of abducting his estranged wife from their home in the state of Washington. He put his wife in his pickup truck and drove for several hours, at times forcing her to lie in a coffin-like wooden box in the truck bed. She was released unharmed.

Blakely entered an "Alford plea," in which a defendant acknowledges that prosecutors have enough evidence to win a conviction and forgoes a trial.

Under the sentencing guidelines adopted by the state Legislature, Blakely faced a maximum of slightly more than four years in prison. Prosecutors agreed to ask the judge for a sentence near that maximum.

Instead, the judge said a four-year term too lenient and imposed a term of seven years and five months.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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