In the aftermath of the uproar over "Django Unchained” actress Daniele Watts’ detainment by Los Angeles police officers, questions have been raised about what rights an individual has when approached by law enforcement.
After police arrived on the scene of a call about alleged indecent exposure in Studio City, Watts refused to give police her ID and was detained along with her boyfriend, celebrity chef Brian James Lucas. She was handcuffed and released shortly afterward. The officer has defended his actions.
Peter Bibring, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, spoke with the L.A. Times about when individuals must provide identification to police. Here’s a rundown of the law and the ACLU’s recommendations for people who are asked for their ID.
Do you have to show an ID whenever an official asks for one?
No. In California, police cannot arrest someone merely for refusing to provide ID.
Police can always ask for identification, just like they can ask if you’ll step over and answer a few questions, or if they can search your bag or come into your house. But just because they can ask doesn’t mean you have to allow them to see your ID.
If you don’t want to provide identification, you can politely say you do not want to do so and ask if you are free to go.
When can police ask for identification?
If you are driving and are stopped by police, you must provide a drivers license.
And although California law generally requires that officers release people who are cited for misdemeanors, rather than taking them to jail, it makes an exception if the person cannot provide satisfactory identification. If officers are actually trying to write you a misdemeanor citation, you may have to provide identification or face arrest for the misdemeanor offense.
If you are a suspect in a crime, do you have to show your identification?
If police reasonably suspect you of a crime, they can detain you to investigate that crime. Some states have what are called “Stop and Identify” statutes that require someone suspected of criminal activity to provide identification to police, making refusal a crime. California has no such statute, so if you refuse to provide an ID while police are detaining you, they can’t arrest you just for refusing.
When might showing your ID be a good idea anyway?
If you really haven’t done anything wrong, knowing your identity could help police resolve their investigation in your favor, and refusing to provide identification could prolong it.
For example, suppose a neighbor reports a burglary at your house and police arrive at the moment you happen to be carrying a computer out of the house. They would have a reason to detain you to investigate the burglary call, but you might be able to clear up the situation by showing your ID to prove you live there. In that case, refusing to show ID could make their investigation take longer even though it’s not illegal to refuse.
Providing identification can also just help an interaction with police go more smoothly. Police may want to check for warrants so they can be sure you aren’t a dangerous, wanted criminal. They may be less nervous if they feel they know who they’re dealing with.