US citizens do not enjoy a constitutional right to refuse to reveal their identity when requested by police.
In what may become a major boost to US law enforcement and antiterrorism efforts, the US Supreme Court Monday upheld a Nevada law that makes it a criminal offense for anyone suspected of wrongdoing to refuse to identify himself to police.
Civil libertarians see the decision as a significant setback. And it remains unclear to what extent it may open the door to the issuing of national identification cards or widespread identity operations keyed to terrorist profiling at bus terminals, train stations, sports stadiums, and on city streets.
"It's a green light to explore the bounds of how much personal information can be demanded on pain of arrest," says Timothy Lynch of the Cato Institute in Washington. "It also gives a green light to perhaps the Congress to move with a national law."
Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, says the decision has clear implications for the war on terror.
"We know identification continues to be one of the key demands of government agencies involved in homeland security," he says. "[This decision] - depending on how broad it is - could open the door to new demands for identification."
The ruling marks the first time the nation's highest court has endorsed a provision compelling citizens to reveal information in a citizen-police encounter that may become a police investigation.
The 5-to-4 decision says that neither the Fourth Amendment's right to privacy nor the Fifth Amendment's guarantee against self-incrimination bars states from passing laws requiring citizens to identify themselves.
In effect, the majority justices say that in most cases it is no significant intrusion for police to request - and a suspect to provide - his name.
"One's identity is, by definition, unique; yet it is, in another sense, a universal characteristic," writes Justice Anthony Kennedy for the majority. "Answering a request to disclose a name is likely to be so insignificant in the scheme of things as to be incriminating only in unusual circumstances."
Justice Kennedy adds that if a case arises in which the furnished identity provides a key link leading to the conviction of the individual for a different crime, the court will revisit the issue.
Joining Justice Kennedy's majority opinion were Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas.
In a dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens says the Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination must always shield a criminal suspect who is being questioned by police. Since police may only request the name of someone they find suspicious (under the upheld Nevada statute), that person is by definition a criminal suspect who may not be compelled to make statements that might incriminate him, Justice Stevens says.
"The court reasons that we should not assume the disclosure of petitioner's name would be used to incriminate him," Justice Stevens writes. "But why else would an officer ask for it?"
Stevens adds, "A name can provide the key to a broad array of information about a person particularly in the hands of a police officer with access to a range of law enforcement databases."
The decision stems from the case of Larry Hiibel, who was arrested in May 2000 after he refused a deputy sheriff's repeated demand that he produce some form of identification.
The encounter took place at the side of a road in Humboldt County, Nev. The deputy had received a report of a man striking a woman in a pickup truck. When the deputy arrived at the scene, Mr. Hiibel was standing outside a pickup truck that was parked on the shoulder of the road. His daughter was sitting inside the truck.
The deputy asked Hiibel 11 times to produce identification. Hiibel repeatedly refused, saying he'd done nothing wrong. The deputy placed him under arrest in accord with a Nevada law that permits police to detain criminal suspects for up to 60 minutes to compel them to identify themselves.
Hiibel refused to comply. He was charged and convicted of violating the mandatory identity law, a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail. His conviction was affirmed by a state appeals court and the Nevada Supreme Court.
In upholding his conviction and the mandatory identity-disclosure law, the majority justices also said the law only requires that a suspect disclose his or her name, rather than requiring production of a driver's license or other document.
• Linda Feldmann contributed to this report.