The Supreme Court yesterday upheld a state law that makes it a crime to refuse to tell the police one's name when stopped for suspicious behavior, a ruling that strengthens the ability of law enforcement officers to detain citizens even where they lack enough evidence for a full arrest.
By a vote of 5 to 4, the court ruled that Larry Dudley Hiibel's constitutional rights to be free of unreasonable arrest and to remain silent were not violated when Deputy Lee Dove arrested him for refusing to give his name after Dove stopped Hiibel and questioned him near Winnemucca, Nev., on May 21, 2000. Hiibel was convicted of violating Nevada's "stop and identify" law and fined $250.
Hiibel and his supporters, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, had urged the court to strike down the Nevada statute, arguing that it effectively criminalizes a citizen's silence. Advocates for the homeless had argued that laws such as Nevada's could be used to harass homeless people, who are often mentally ill or lack identification cards.
But the author of the majority opinion, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, made it clear that he regarded the disclosure of one's name, the only piece of information the Nevada law specifically requires, as a modest intrusion on privacy.
And whatever privacy interest or concern about self-incrimination Hiibel might have had was outweighed by the state's interests in protecting police officers and investigating crime, Kennedy wrote.
"As best we can tell, [Hiibel] refused to identify himself only because he thought his name was none of the officer's business," Kennedy wrote. "Even today, [Hiibel] does not explain how the disclosure of his name could have been used against him in a criminal case."
Kennedy was joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.
Eighteen other states have laws like Nevada's, but not all of them provide for criminal penalties.
Nevada's law says that police may detain anyone "under circumstances which reasonably indicate that the person has committed, is committing or is about to commit a crime," and that "any person so detained shall identify himself, but may not be compelled to answer any other inquiry."
It was intended to codify the Supreme Court's 1968 decision in Terry v. Ohio. That case empowered police to briefly detain suspicious subjects -- such as people who seem to be "casing" a bank in preparation for a robbery -- question them and search them for weapons.
The court created "Terry stops" to cover situations in which the police have "reasonable suspicion" of criminal conduct but not enough information for "probable cause," the constitutional standard for making an arrest.
Until yesterday, the court had never clearly said what police may require of a citizen in a Terry stop -- although in a famous concurrence to Terry, Justice Byron R. White had said there is no obligation to respond to police questions.
Hiibel, a rancher who sports a Stetson hat, made his case to the public on a Web site that includes a videotape of his encounter with Dove. The film, shot by a camera mounted on Dove's car, shows a possibly inebriated Hiibel refusing 11 requests for his name before being handcuffed and arrested.
Dove, responding to a tip about a man punching a woman in a pickup truck, had come upon Hiibel standing next to his pickup on the side of a road. His teenage daughter was in the cab.
Hiibel had argued that the Nevada law turns Terry into a license to arrest people just for seeming suspicious. But Kennedy said that would not happen because "an officer may not arrest a suspect for failure to identify himself if the request for identification is not reasonably related to the circumstances justifying the [Terry] stop."
As for the risk of self-incrimination from disclosing one's name to police, Kennedy said that would happen "only in unusual circumstances."
But Justice John Paul Stevens, in a dissenting opinion, called this assumption "quite wrong." Hiibel's name could have helped police link him to criminal activity, Stevens noted, so he "acted well within his rights when he opted to stand mute."
Justice Stephen G. Breyer, joined by Justices David H. Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, also dissented, arguing that the court should have endorsed the position outlined in White's Terry concurrence.
The case is Hiibel v. Sixth Judicial District Court of Nevada, No. 03-5554.