Court decides what's in a name

The U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding Nevadan Larry Hiibel's arrest for refusing to identify himself to a police officer is the correct one because it supports a "reasonable suspicion" standard.

There are some flaws in the decision, and the court's 5-4 vote reflects the competing interests between civil liberties and law enforcement. But the ruling should be seen neither as a dire threat to our constitutional rights, nor an open door for police interrogations.

An important aspect of the ruling is the careful construction of Nevada's law requiring people to identify themselves to a police officer who has a reasonable suspicion they have committed a crime.

They do not have to "show their papers," as Hiibel supporters characterized the case, but simply state their names. Police must have some grounds for being suspicious - from the beginning of their questioning - and can't simply roust people for no good reason.

The Catch-22 in the case is that someone may well be subject to arrest by identifying himself to a police officer, if the person has an outstanding warrant, for example. In doing so, he has tended to incriminate himself by giving up the right to remain silent.

The "reasonable suspicion" standard is the key to balancing the constitutional question and is, ultimately, the only practical way for the court to have ruled.

In the Nevada case, the officer clearly had reason to stop and question Hiibel by the side of the road after a report of a possible domestic battery. Neither Hiibel nor the deputy comported themselves particularly well, but the deputy was in fact attempting to investigate a potential crime.

Hiibel did nothing to ease the officer's suspicions. As it turned out, the deputy had the right guy. It also turned out that no crime had been committed, other than Hiibel refusing to identify himself.

That isn't a crime everywhere, but it is in Nevada. Nothing in the circumstances of Hiibel's arrest proves that it should be removed from the books.


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment