Some D.C. police officers improperly have threatened to arrest citizens for failing to produce identification when they were cited for violating pedestrian laws, the department has confirmed.
However, officials said they are uncertain how widespread the practice has been because relatively few people have complained.
"We understand that there have been some problems" with officers who have compelled citizens to show documentary proof of their identity, one traffic official said. Other officials blamed the problem on "confusion" with the police department's general orders.
According to D.C. law, pedestrians are required to give police their true name and address, but can only be asked for documentary proof if there is reason to believe the information given verbally is fictitious.
According to Assistant Chief Isaac Fulwood, police must have "probable cause" not to believe information supplied verbally. "If a person says my name is Donald Duck, then there's a reasonable cause" to believe the information is incorrect, and an officer can ask for identification, such as a driver's license, said Fulwood.
The police department's Special Operations Division conducted an investigation into the problem after a citizen, who was cited twice for jaywalking, complained that on both occasions he was threatened with arrest if he did not produce some form of identification.
Investigators found "a discrepancy between the police department regulations and the actual law," according to one official. "The department's regulations led officers to believe that they had the authority to demand identification."
Although the problem may not be widespread, officials said it is important to clear up any misunderstanding so the public will support the new crackdown on traffic and pedestrian violations, which started April 1. "Any time you put in a new program, people are going to have questions," Fulwood said. "We are . . . encouraging citizens to complain about where there are problems."
Officials said a teletype message was sent to all divisions and police districts outlining the law, and the Traffic Enforcement Branch, which oversees pedestrian laws, has proposed revisions for the department's general orders to "clarify" the rules. The branch also is developing a roll-call training film to instruct police on when they can ask for documentary proof of identification.
Officials said the current confusion dates back to the city's decriminalization of traffic violations. When the decriminalization took effect in 1981, lawyers found a loophole whereby motorists did not have to obey police orders or produce a driver's license or car registration when stopped.
Emergency legislation passed by the D.C. city council restored the police department's authority to stop motorists and ask for identification. However citizens were not required to possess or display any documentary proof of their names or addresses when stopped for pedestrian violations.
Police stress that anyone who fails to verbally provide his or her name or gives police fictitious information is subject to arrest and a $50 fine.