The Supreme Court ruled Monday that people do not have a constitutional right to refuse to tell police their names.
The 5-4 decision based on a Nevada case frees the government to arrest and punish people who won’t cooperate by revealing their identity.
The decision was a defeat for privacy rights advocates who argued that the government could use this power to force people who have done nothing wrong to submit to fingerprinting or divulge more personal information.
Police, meanwhile, had argued that identification requests are a routine part of detective work, including efforts to get information about terrorists.
The justices upheld a Nevada cattle rancher’s misdemeanor conviction. He was arrested after he told a deputy that he didn’t have to reveal his name or show an ID during an encounter on a rural road in 2000.
Larry “Dudley” Hiibel was prosecuted, based on his silence and fined $250. The Nevada Supreme Court sided with police on a 4-3 vote.
Justices agreed in a unique ruling that addresses just what’s in a name.
The ruling was a follow up to a 1968 decision that said police may briefly detain someone on reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing, without the stronger standard of probable cause, to get more information. Justices said that during such brief detentions, known as Terry stops after the 1968 ruling, people must answer questions about their identities.
Justices had been asked to rule that forcing someone to give police their name violated a person’s Fourth Amendment protection from unreasonable searches and the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing for the majority, said that that it violated neither.
“Obtaining a suspect’s name in the course of a Terry stop serves important government interests,” Kennedy wrote.
The ruling left the door open for what Kennedy said would be an unusual case in which revealing a name would be incriminating. But he said generally, disclosing an identity is “so insignificant in the scheme of things.”
Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said America is different 36 years after the Terry decision. “In a modern era, when the police get your identification, they are getting an extraordinary look at your private life.”
He said the ruling for Nevada “opens the door to what could become a routine fishing expedition among government databases,” after police stop innocent people.
The police encounter with Hiibel happened after someone called police to report arguing between Hiibel and his daughter in a truck. An officer asked him 11 times for his identification or his name.
Over and over again Hiibel refused, at one point saying, “If you’ve got something, take me to jail” and “I don’t want to talk. I’ve done nothing. I’ve broken no laws.”
In dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens said that Hiibel “acted well within his rights when he opted to stand mute.” Also disagreeing with the decision were Justices David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.
Justices were told that 20 states have similar laws to the Nevada statute upheld by the high court: Alabama, Arkansas, California, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Utah, Vermont, and Wisconsin.
The case is Hiibel v. Sixth Judicial District Court of the state of Nevada, 03-5554.