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Self Identification at the Time of Enforcing the Law Essay

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Updated: Jun 18th, 2020

Overview of the topic

Law enforcement officers encounter different challenges when executing their duties. In the prevention of crime, it becomes a challenge for law enforcers to distinguish criminals from innocent citizens. In a bid to curb the challenge of identifying criminals in society, the federal government passed legislation that requires people to identify themselves on request by police officers. However, the police officers carry the responsibility of executing the requirement of self-identification in line with the constitution to avoid violating the rights and liberties of the citizens. The main objective of this paper is to discuss the statute of self-identification and its requirements at the time of enforcing the law.

History and evolution of self-identification

The legislation governing self-identification originated from the Nevada Statute. The legislation directs people, when stopped by the police for interrogation, to identify themselves. However, there should be an element of reasonable suspicion prior to stopping a person. In such a case, the police officers should be guided by suspicion linking a person to criminal activities. Additionally, the legislation authorizes an officer to detain a person who fails to comply (Inbau, 1999). However, the period of detention must not exceed 60 minutes. Although the law of self-identification is not federal legislation, most states implement it.

The current concept of self-identification is bound with the legislation of stop-and-identify that can be traced back to the traditional law of vagrancy. In England, the legislation on vagrancy allowed police officers to arrest suspected criminals. However, the law allowed suspects to identify themselves to avoid getting arrested (Inbau, 1999). Prior to the law of vagrancy, England practiced a common law, which allowed any individual to arrest and/or detain people of a suspicious character. However, suspects would be released after giving a comprehensive account of themselves to ascertain their identity (Inbau, 1999).

In the case of Terry v. the state of Ohio in 1968, the court used most of the stipulations of the traditional vagrant law of England to decide the case. Furthermore, the court stipulated some standards that the police officers should use when executing investigations after stopping a suspect (Hughes, 2006). The combination of the law of vagrancy and standards for investigations marked a significant milestone toward the current law of identification.

In this case, an officer on patrol observed two men walking past a store and suspected that they were planning a robbery. The officer intercepted the men and requested them to identify themselves by mentioning their names. On declining to respond, the officer searched them by force and seized two firearms. The two were charged for being in possession of concealed firearms. However, some of the people had the perception that asking for identification entailed a violation of the Fourth Amendment (Hughes, 2006).

According to the Constitution, the Fourth Amendment gives people the right to protect their personal identity. The Supreme Court also questioned standards that police officers used to stop people. The court moved further to establish an objective criterion through which officers can stop a person (“Hiibel v. Sixth Judicial District Court,” 2005).

At the beginning of the 1970s, the Supreme Court identified several flaws with the legislation of identity. According to the court, the traditional law of vagrancy was vague, as it denied justice to the suspects (Zydney, 2005). In the case of Papachristou v. the state of Jacksonville, the court ruled that the broad scope of the traditional law of vagrancy denied potential suspects a proper notice prior to their arrest and detention. The broad scope of the law created a loophole that allowed the police officers to misuse their powers and violate some of the constitutional rights of the suspects (Hughes, 2006).

In the case of Kolender v. Lawson, the state of California introduced an objective criterion for identification. In the course of ruling, the court subjected potential suspects of criminal conduct to providing reliable and credible identities (Nederhood, 2004). However, the court failed to state the ways through which a suspect could identify him/herself. The statute implemented by the state of California provided an opportunity for the variations in the law of self-identification across different states (Whytock, 2013).

The question of whether or not self-identification entailed a violation of the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment was addressed in the case of Hiibel v. the state of Nevada. In this case, a man involved in a fight with a woman was arrested for declining to provide any form of identification. In his statement of appeal to the Supreme Court of Nevada, Hiibel stated that the officer’s request for his identity entailed a violation of the fourth and the fifth Amendments (“Hiibel v. Sixth Judicial District Court,” 2005). However, both the Supreme Court of Nevada and that of the United States rejected Hiibel’s arguments as provided in his appeal (“Hiibel v. Sixth Judicial District Court,” 2005).

The Nevada ruling made significant improvements to the law of stop and identified. First, the law was within the stipulations of prior cases concerning identity and investigations by the police officers. The statute further provided that one’s names carry a reliable form of identification (Nederhood, 2004). The narrow requirement of a name in the absence of an accompanying document for verifications eliminated the possibilities of violating the 4th Amendment. The statute formulated a standard through which an officer can request for identification without violating the stipulations of both 4th and 5th Amendments (Shelli, 2005).

According to the ruling passed by the Supreme Court of Nevada, the 4th Amendment to the Constitution did not prohibit courts from forcing people to identify themselves (Hughes, 2006). However, identification was to be accompanied with a proof of reasonable suspicion connecting the person in question to criminal activities. If the officers complied with the stipulation of Terry stop rule, then identification did not violate the suspect’s privacy as highlighted in the 4th Amendment (Shelli, 2005). With reference to the 5th Amendment that protects citizens from self-incrimination, a person’s name does not depict reliable and credible evidence to incriminate a suspect (Inbau, 1999).

Reasons for self-identification

The legislation governing self-identity serves various purposes in addition to governing the relationship between people and officers as they enforce laws. First, self-identification helps officers to identify criminals and avoid unlawful arrests and detention of innocent citizens (Hughes, 2006). According to court’s decision in the case of Terry, questioning a suspect entailed a significant part of the investigations by officers.

In most cases, identity of a person can help to clear the suspicion surrounding an individual in detention. Moreover, the police officers can use a person’s identity to charge a person in relation to prior crimes (Callahan & Jeffrey, 2007). In the domestic setup, identity of a person helps officers to evaluate the situation on the ground to ascertain the magnitude of the crime. Additionally, self-identification entails adhering to the statutes that can help eliminate the element of wrongful arrests and detention (Callahan & Jeffrey, 2007).

Requirements for self-identification

In some states such as Nevada, mentioning a person’s name entails a credible form of identification. However, in other states, the law requires a suspect to mention his or her name and produce an identity card for verification. Nevertheless, some circumstances compel police officers to ask for identification documents. For example, when driving or planning to travel by commercial carriers, security agents are bound to ask for the documents of identification to verify a person’s identity (Nederhood, 2004).

In dealing with the suspects of criminal activities, identification is two-way, as the officers must identity themselves prior to asking for the identity of a person. In case an officer fails to identify him/herself, it is legal for the suspect to decline to reveal his/her identity (Zydney, 2005). However, self-identification must not violate the stipulations of the 4th Amendment. First, there must be reasonable suspicion linking a person to a crime.

For example, officers can stop and interrogate persons leaving scenes of crime (Hughes, 2006). The requirement is contained in the case of Terry. According to the court’s decision, it was valid for the officer to ask the suspects to identify themselves depending on their behavior around the intended scene of crime (Nederhood, 2004). Furthermore, self-identification must not depict aspects of racial profiling as highlighted in the case of US v. Brignoni-Ponce. According to the court, racial profiling entailed a violation of the 4th Amendment, as a person’s origin does not account for reasonable suspicion or link to committing a crime (Shelli, 2005).

Nevertheless, prior to asking for a person’s identity, police officers must determine the balance between individual interests of a suspect and those of the government. Furthermore, self-identification must not subject a person to unreasonable seizures and searches (Zydney, 2005). To counter the challenge of racial profiling, self-identification should facilitate the execution of an officer’s duties by facilitating the diversion of scarce resources to another area. For example, self-identification should help officers to get clarifications and focus on other activities (Inbau, 1999).

Prior to asking for identification, officers should determine the length at which the exercise will last. Statutes indicate that identifications and detentions should not exceed 60 minutes. Furthermore, identification should not alter the place of detention or extend beyond the time set by the statutes (Hughes, 2006). Extension of time and a change of location entail an intrusion into a person’s privacy. Although officers should not force a person to identify him/herself, some circumstances may force law enforcers to issue threats (Zydney, 2005).

However, such threats should be geared towards facilitating the efficiency of identification. For example, in the case of domestic violence, threats can be issued to perpetrators who fail to identify themselves. In such a way, the police officers obtain sufficient information that will enable them to protect the victims. According to the ruling by the Supreme Court of Nevada, self-identification must be in line with the initial purpose for the detention. Furthermore, request for identification must be in line with the results of the investigation (Zydney, 2005). In such a case, identification helps in making clarifications concerning the matter under investigation.

Self-identification must be within the stipulations of the 5th Amendment. The amendment protects citizens from unfair judicial processes arising from the provision of information that can be used against a person in a court (Zydney, 2005). With reference to the 5th Amendment, information obtained through self-identification should not lead to criminal liability.

However, the respondent should consider that the constitution does not account for silence during interrogations by enforcers of the law. According to the Nevada statute, self-identification must be short and simple. A person should state his/her name and provision of documents for verification entails a violation of the 5th Amendment. Moreover, for the violation of the 5th Amendment, self-identification must lead to the generation of information that links a person to another crime that is not under investigation (Inbau, 1999).

There lacks uniformity in the law requiring people to identify themselves during law enforcement. For example, in Nevada, a mention of the name entails sufficient form of identity. However, in other states such as Texas, the law requires a person to provide additional information such as place of birth and residence. The differences can also be spotted in consequences related to violating the law of identification. Such lack of uniformity poses various challenges to the application of the law.

For example, a resident of Nevada who is arrested and charged in Texas for failing to identify him/herself can move to Nevada and challenge the court’s decision made in Texas. In most cases, legislation of self-identification can hardly be implemented in the absence of other laws. Additional laws must be considered to ensure that self-identification does not violate constitutional rights of the citizens. For example, for the states whose law of identification does not integrate penalties, the court must consider other laws such as obstruction to execute suspects who decline to identify themselves (Whytock, 2013).

Differences in the law concerning identification have contributed to different interpretations by courts across the United States (Whytock, 2013). Right from the time of introduction, courts have made different decisions regarding self-identification. For example, the Californian statute that was rejected for lacking authenticity was used to decide the Hiibel’s appeal (Nederhood, 2004). Such variances in decisions highlight some vague features of the law.

In most states, courts do not have standards that highlight how individuals should respond to a request for identification. Lack of standards has led to the courts abandoning most of the doctrines arising from the case of Hiibel in favor of other laws that are closely related to self-identification (Hughes, 2006). The law regarding self-identification places a significant proportion of citizens at the risk of possible arrest. The police officers can use failure to reveal identity to incriminate a person. Furthermore, it can be difficult to draw a direct link between reasons for stopping a person and reasons for self-identity.


The concept of self-identification can be traced to the times of the traditional law of vagrancy implemented in England. However, the Supreme Courts across different states made crucial decisions that contributed to the improvement of the law of vagrancy. The case of Hiibel contributed to the stipulations of requirements for self-identification. Furthermore, the case helped to eliminate the vaguest concepts in the prior legislations. Although the law of self-identification affects all the citizens, the Supreme Court of the United States is yet to unify the law across states.


Callahan, T., & Jeffrey, P. (2007). Armed, and Dangerous: Motivating Rule Adherence among Agents of Social Control. Law Society Review, 41(2), 125-130.

Hiibel v. Sixth Judicial district Court. (2005). Berkeley Technology Law Journal, 20(1), 398-97.

Hughes, T. (2006). Terry stops, identification requests, and the Constitution in Hiibel v. the Sixth Judicial District of the state of Nevada: ‘but they just want to know your name.’ Criminal Justice Studies, 19(3), 275-289.

Inbau, E. (1999). Self-incrimination: what can an accused person be compelled to do? Journal of criminal law and criminology, 89(4), 1329-1361.

Nederhood, R. (2004). All or Nothing: The Supreme Court Answers the Question ‘What’s In a Name’, Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 95 (3), 809-840.

Shelli, C. (2005). Stop and identify statuses do not violate the 4th and 5th Amendments. Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review, 40(1), 251-52.

Whytock, C. (2013). Foreign state immunity and the right to court access. Boston Law Review, 93(6), 50-112.

Zydney, M. (2005). Ripeness of Self-Incrimination Clause Disputes. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 95(4), 1261-1326.

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