Do You Have To Identify Yourself To The Police?

What should you do when identifying yourself to police?   This is the third part in a series of posts about what legal obligation you have when you interact with the police.  The second post dealt with the question of when one may lawfully refuse to answer police questions.  This third post deals with a hypothetical situation where a police officer asks for identification.


You are standing near a drug store.  Suddenly, you hear alarms and see a man in a ski-mask fleeing the store.  The police arrive a few minutes later and one of them comes over and asks for your identification.

Identifying Yourself to Police

The BEST answer: Tell him only your name, date of birth, and address.

The CORRECT answer: Hand him your driver’s license or other identification.

The WRONG reaction: No.  This is America, I don’t need “papers” to walk the streets in broad daylight.

Stop and Identify

Many states have now passed into law what are generally referred to as “stop and identify” statutes.  In Ohio, the law states that someone who has, is, or is about to, commit a criminal offense, or even someone who just witnessed certain criminal offenses, must identify themselves upon request.  This identification consists of your name, birthdate, and address.  You could provide this information by turning over your ID, but getting it out of your pocket or purse might cause other things to fall out where the officer can see them.

If, for instance, you open your purse to get your ID and the officer sees a bag of marijuana, he can arrest you, seize the marijuana, and it can be used against you as evidence in court.  He does not need a warrant or anything like that because you displayed the evidence to him, in plain view.  Thus, though it would be legally fine and CORRECT to show him your driver’s license, the BEST solution is to simply tell him the information.

This brings up another important point about dealing appropriately with police officers while shielding yourself from potential problems.  Many people assume that officers who are asking questions or performing a search are looking for one specific thing and will not, or are not allowed, to pay attention to anything else they discover.

This is not true.  If an item, the criminality of which is evident, comes within an officer’s plain view, he may seize it and see that appropriate charges are brought.  Thus, when you are interacting with the police, it is a good idea to never give them more information or opportunity to view your things than absolutely necessary.  If the police are talking to you on the street, keep your bags and clothes closed/zipped.  Do not retrieve anything from your pockets.

If they are talking to you in your car, keep all containers (glove box, trunk, suitcases etc.) closed and latched.  If they come to your house (and you do not think they are there to arrest you), step outside the house and close the door behind you.  Do not invite them in to talk.  If you believe they are there to arrest you.  Talk to them through the door or with the door slightly ajar.  Do not invite them in.  And in each situation, talk to them as politely as possible and as little as necessary.

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