Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Am I Required to Show Police My ID in California?

Actress Danielle Watts had an unfortunate encounter with some of LA's finest last weekend, after someone called 911 to report suspected prostitution in a parked car.  Apparently, the Django Unchained actress, who is black, was sitting in the vehicle and kissing her boyfriend, who is white. Police responded to the scene and conducted a cursory investigation before determining that no crime had been committed.

During the course of their investigation, police requested Ms. Watts' ID.  When she refused to provide one, she was briefly handcuffed and placed into the back of a squad car.  Eventually, her boyfriend produced her driver's license and she was released.  Her refusal to provide ID has raised a lot of commentary from legal analysts, amateur and professional alike.  What legal authority do police have to request ID from adults in public places?  What rights do I have if I refuse to provide one?  Put simply, am I required to show my ID to police upon demand in California?

The answer, like almost everything else in the law, is "it depends".

In most situations, you have no legal obligation to show your ID to police in California -- that is, you will not be arrested simply for the crime of "refusing to produce ID upon demand of a peace officer". An exception exists if you are operating a motor vehicle.  Of course, cops can demand to see your driver's license if you're observed committing some kind of traffic violation in your car.  Refusal to provide your driver's license after a traffic stop will result in a citation or arrest.

And then there's a lot of gray area.

Keep in mind, police can always ask to see your ID, just like they can ask you to make them a turkey sandwich.  You have no legal obligation to do either (under most circumstances).  The big question then becomes: what happens if I say "no"?

Police have authority to temporarily detain individuals if they have a "reasonable suspicion" that the subject might be engaged in some type of criminal activity.  These "temporary detentions" usually involve little more than checking ID and sending folks on their way.  "Reasonable" is the key word in these situations:  is the cop acting "reasonably" in suspecting that a subject might be involved in criminal activity?  Is the detention "reasonable" under the circumstances?  These questions obviously turn on the specifics of each case.

So, while you generally have no legal duty in California to show your ID to cops upon demand, refusal to do so may prolong your "temporary detention", as Ms. Watts recently learned.