Monday, June 21, 2004

What's In A Name?

In a landmark case involving cherished civil liberties, the Supreme Court held today, in a 5-4 ruling, that people do not have the Constitutional right to refuse to give their name to a police officer if asked. In fact, such a refusal can be criminalized by statute.

The ruling was largely decided along ideological lines with Rehnquist, Scalia, Thomas, Kennedy and O'Connor in the majority and Stevens, Breyer, Ginsburg and Souter in dissent.

As reported in the New York Times, "Asking questions is an essential part of police investigations," Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority. "In the ordinary course a police officer is free to ask a person for identification without implicating the Fourth Amendment."

The problem here, however, is not whether or not a police officer questioning a civilian, not pursuant to an arrest, has the ability or authority to ask for identification but whether the individual is compelled to answer. According to the Court's ruling, if a state statute requires an answer, then one must be provided.

The ramifications of this ruling are potentially far reaching. At the risk of overstating the issue, the problem with rulings like this is that generally in the realm of constitutionally protected freedoms and their interplay with law enforcement, when an inch is given a mile is taken. For an example in the extreme, what would prevent police from canvassing a political demonstration, demanding the names of protestors. Under this ruling, the protestors would be compelled to provide their names upon request. This could have a detrimental chilling effect on free speech and the right to assembly.

There are, unfortunately, elements in the law enforcement community, from the Department of Justice down to the cop on the beat, that seek to curtail Constitutional protections at every turn. To this group, not necessarily the majority, many of these fundamental rights are seen as impediments to the investigation, apprehension and prosecution of criminals. It is human nature to seek the power to do your job to the fullest, and it is with much prescient foresight that the framers, and subsequent amenders, knew that external checks, in the form of guarantees of personal liberties, were needed to abate the over-reaching zeal of state operators. These personal liberties are a crucial foundation to the rule of law, and the American way, but today that foundation showed a crack, a small fissure through which a dangerous precedent could emerge.

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