WASHINGTON — Police officers who have reason to stop a suspicious person may also require the individual to identify himself, the U.S. Supreme Court said Monday, calling such a requirement a "common-sense inquiry" that is basic to good police work.
In a 5-4 decision, the justices rejected the idea that Americans have a constitutional right to remain silent.
The decision upholds the laws in Nevada and 20 other states that make it a crime to refuse to identify yourself when asked to do so by the police. California has no such law.
The case of a Nevada ranch hand who refused to give his name provoked talk of national ID cards and totalitarian states that require persons to identify themselves on the authorities' demand. But in Monday's opinion, the Supreme Court said it was endorsing a much narrower proposition.
The requirement to identify oneself applies only when a police officer has a "reasonable suspicion" that an individual is involved in wrongdoing, the court said, and does not extend to a person sitting innocently on a park bench or a pedestrian walking down a street.
The arrest of ranch hand Larry Hiibel was triggered by a call to the Sheriff's Department in Humboldt County, Nev. The caller reported seeing a man assault a woman in a red and silver GMC truck on Grass Valley Road. A deputy dispatched to investigate came upon a red and silver pickup truck parked on that road. A woman was sitting inside the truck; a man was standing outside.
The deputy approached the man and said he was investigating a report of a fight. He observed that the man appeared to be intoxicated and asked for identification.
The deputy asked 11 times for the man to identify himself; each time, the man refused. He put his hands behind his back and offered to be put under arrest.
Finally, the deputy arrested the man, who was charged with violating a Nevada law that makes it a crime to "willfully resist, delay or obstruct a public officer" in discharging his duties.
Another portion of the state law says an officer "may detain any person" who an officer reasonably believes has committed or is about to commit a crime. Moreover, "any person so detained shall identify himself," the law says.
Hiibel was convicted and fined $250. The Nevada Supreme Court upheld his conviction in a 4-3 decision, with the judges citing the war on terrorism as a reason for their decision. "We are at war against enemies who operate with concealed identifies, and the dangers we face as a nation are unparalleled," the Nevada court said.
That claim may have prompted the Supreme Court to take up Hiibel's appeal last fall, but the ruling Monday in Hiibel vs. Nevada was narrow and focused.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing the majority opinion, said that since 1968, the court has said that police may "stop and frisk" a suspicious person.
"Our decisions make clear that questions concerning a suspect's identity are a routine and accepted part of many [such police] stops," Kennedy said. Learning a suspect's name allows an officer to check to see if he is wanted for another offense. In domestic disputes, a name is the first step for the police in figuring out who they are dealing with, he added.
Usually, a name itself is not an incriminating statement, he said. If so, a defendant could invoke his right to remain silent under the 5th Amendment if he had a reasonable belief that his name alone would be incriminating, Kennedy said.
"We need not resolve those questions here," he concluded, because Hiibel did not claim that revealing his name would be incriminating. Kennedy was joined in the majority by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. The dissenters offered two reasons why they disagreed with the majority.
Justice John Paul Stevens said that forcing Hiibel to speak violated the 5th Amendment's right against self-incrimination. "As the target of the investigation, [Hiibel], in my view, acted well within his rights when he opted to stand mute," Stevens said.
Justice Stephen G. Breyer said that forcing a suspect to talk violated the 4th Amendment and its protection against "unreasonable seizures." While police may stop and frisk a suspect to check for weapons, he said, the court had not required the detained person to say anything. Unless put under arrest, those people remain free to walk away, he said.
"There is no good reason now to reject this generation-old statement of the law," Breyer said in a dissent joined by Justices David H. Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.