He fought the law, and the law won

By

A lot of people want to know why I went all the way to the Supreme Court rather than give my name to a policeman. "What's so important about that?" they ask. "What's the big principle at stake?" And last week, when the Supreme Court ruled against me, maybe some thought I was foolish to have done it. But I still think I did the right thing and that there were some issues that had to be decided.

The story began May 21, 2000, when I was on a rural road near my ranch in Winnemucca, Nev. My daughter and I had gotten into an argument. She was driving, and I was the passenger. We stopped by the side of the road, parked legally, and we continued our argument. I figured we would finish it out and then cool off for a moment.

That's when I heard sirens, and all of a sudden a police car drove up. A deputy walked up to me and demanded my "papers." I asked him what the problem was.

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"Why do you guys have me surrounded?" I asked, because by now there were two or three more police cars.

He refused to explain why he was there or why he wanted my papers. Eleven times he demanded my identification. I refused to give it to him each time, and he finally handcuffed me and took me to jail. The cops threw my daughter on the ground, cuffed her hands behind her and demanded her name as well, but by that time I was on my way to the county jail. I got there at midafternoon and stayed overnight.

I hadn't been argumentative; I wasn't picking a fight. Basically, when Deputy Dove demanded my papers - and he didn't ask for them, he demanded them - I didn't say, "Hey, cop, I'm not going to give you nothing." I just asked why he wanted them. "What have I done?" I asked.

If he'd explained what he was doing there, perhaps it could have been settled on the spot. But his position was that he wanted the papers first. [Editor's note: The police had received a report of a man striking a woman in a pickup truck.]

Here's why this was so important to me: I don't believe that the authorities in the United States of America are supposed to walk up to you and ask for your papers. I thought that wasn't lawful. Apparently I was wrong, but I thought that that was part of what we were guaranteed under the Constitution. We're supposed to be free men, able to walk freely in our own country - not hampered, not stopped at checkpoints. That's part of what makes this country different from other places. That's what I was taught.

And it's not just because it's in the Constitution. It's something that you just kind of know. It's kind of obvious. If you haven't committed a crime, you shouldn't be harassed by the police. If they suspect you of something, I don't see why they shouldn't explain it. I wasn't violent. And it was proved later in court that I hadn't committed any crimes.

These days, it's as if we're all guilty until proved innocent. You walk into an airport and everybody's a suspect. Like the way people were treated in Soviet Russia, in Red China, in Castro's Cuba.

We don't want the US to become that.

I don't have a superclear understanding of the Constitution. I'm not an attorney. I've never even read the whole thing. I went through only eighth grade. But I remember what I learned, and it seems to me that the whole idea of "your papers, please" goes completely against the grain of the American people.

As I understood it, the state was supposed to serve us - we aren't supposed to serve the state. Laws were supposed to protect the people against the government, not the other way around.

Maybe in Los Angeles and other places across the country, the police have browbeaten the people into more acceptance of this police-state mentality than where I am. I live out on a ranch, the nearest town is 30 miles away, and it has only 7,000 or 8,000 people. I think that has an effect on our mentality.

It's not that I'm against law enforcement. Criminals should be apprehended. But I don't think we've got to take everybody's rights away just so that we can be safe. If you do that, you've defeated your purpose. I don't think people want to be protected to the extent that they become slaves.

I'm very disappointed by this decision. I think a basic freedom has been lost. What bothers me the most is that my children and grandchildren are going to have to live with this law. It moves us a step closer to control of the people by the government, and I don't think that's a step forward.

Larry Dudley Hiibel, a cattle rancher, was the plaintiff in Hiibel v. Nevada, which was recently decided by the US Supreme Court. This article appeared first in the Los Angeles Times.

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