Failure to Identify to a Police Officer: Laws & Penalties

Law enforcement officers routinely ask people for their names and other identifying information. When do you need to answer?

By , Attorney · Georgia State University College of Law

Law enforcement officers routinely ask people for their names and other identifying information. Police may ask for the information as part of a specific criminal investigation. At other times, they may need the information to protect themselves, allowing them to determine whether the person they are speaking with has a violent criminal history. Many states have made it illegal to refuse to provide certain identifying information to a law enforcement officer when the officer has properly requested it. These laws are commonly referred to as "stop-and-identify" laws.

Is It a Crime to Refuse to Identify Oneself to a Law Enforcement Officer?

In some states, a person questioned by a law enforcement officer is not required to respond. However, many states have passed stop-and-identify laws, which permit a law enforcement officer to stop a person suspected of criminal behavior and ask for identification. Failure by the person stopped to respond is a violation of the law and can lead to arrest and criminal charges.

Some states do not have stop-and-identify statutes. Related statutes in these states vary, and some require a person to respond to the officer's request for identification, and some do not. However, if a person does voluntarily elect to answer, providing false information is usually a crime.

In states that have stop-and-identify laws, the prosecutor has to prove two things in order to get a conviction:

  • the law enforcement officer lawfully stopped the defendant, and
  • the defendant refused to identify him or herself.

When Can a Law Enforcement Officer Stop Someone?

Before a police officer can properly stop a person and ask for identification, the officer must have a reasonable, articulable suspicion that a crime has occurred or is about to occur. This means the officer must be able to state facts and circumstances that would lead a reasonable person to believe that a crime occurred or will soon.

For example, if an officer observes a car driving lawfully in the early morning hours, those facts alone are not sufficient to indicate that a crime occurred, and the officer could not properly stop the vehicle. On the other hand, if the officer had information that a car of the same color, make and model, and with the same number of occupants, just left the scene of a nearby crime, the officer would have specific facts suggesting that a crime occurred involving the occupants of the car and could lawfully stop the vehicle. Even if it turns out the car wasn't the getaway car, the stop is still lawful because the officer had reasonable suspicion.

When Can a Law Enforcement Officer Request Information?

As long as a law enforcement officer's detention (stop) of a person is legal, the officer is always free to ask questions. As discussed above, in some states the person stopped must provide identification, while in other states the person stopped is not required to respond.

How Much Information Must the Person Stopped Provide to the Law Enforcement Officer?

While the answer varies by state, all states with stop-and-identify statutes require that the person stopped provide at least a name. Some states also require the person stopped to provide an address. Other states simply require that the person stopped not provide false information. In these states, the person stopped is not required to answer the law enforcement officer.

Defenses to Stop-and-Identify or Failure-to-Identify Charges

A number of defenses are commonly raised by those charged with failure or refusal to identify oneself to a police officer.

Unlawful Stop or Detention

As previously discussed, a law enforcement officer must have reasonable, articulable suspicion that a crime has occurred or is about to occur. If the law enforcement officer stops the defendant without a reasonable belief that a crime has occurred, the prosecutor cannot use the defendant's refusal to answer as evidence of failure to identify oneself to a police officer.

Unconstitutionally Vague

Some prosecutions for failure to identify oneself to a police officer are based on vagrancy laws. Such laws attempt to address issues such as loitering, panhandling, and public drunkenness by unhoused individuals or persons who have no visible means of support. In a number of cases, vagrancy laws have been struck down by the courts for unconstitutional vagueness. This means that the law does not adequately describe the activity that has been made criminal.

Violation of Fifth Amendment Right Against Self-Incrimination

The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides that a person cannot be compelled to provide self-incriminating testimony. In many instances, providing identification to a police officer would not be self-incriminating. However, in other situations disclosing one's name might alert the officer to outstanding warrants or criminal charges. The U.S. Supreme Court has not ruled on whether providing one's name in response to police questioning on the street constitutes "testimony," thereby bringing the exchange within the protection of the Fifth Amendment. State courts have ruled inconsistently. So whether this defense would apply in a particular state depends on how that state's courts have ruled on the issue.

Penalties for Failure or Refusal to Identify

Failure to identify oneself to a police officer is usually a misdemeanor offense. Someone convicted of this crime can be subjected to any or all of the following penalties:

  • Incarceration. For misdemeanors, sentences may involve 12 months or less in the county jail, depending on the state. The judge may require that the entire sentence be served in jail.
  • Fines. Courts impose fines to penalize defendants. These fines vary greatly.
  • Probation. A person on probation regularly meets with a probation officer and fulfills other terms and conditions, such as maintaining employment and attending counseling.
  • Community service. Courts often include as a part of probation the requirement that the defendant volunteer for a specified number of hours with court-approved organizations, such as charities.

See a Lawyer

If you are facing a charge of failure to identify to a police officer, consider consulting with an experienced criminal defense attorney who regularly practices in your area. A lawyer can evaluate the strength of the prosecution's case against you and help develop any defenses you might have. For example, if you believe that a law enforcement officer improperly stopped you, you will want the assistance of an attorney in developing this defense. Moreover, if the information you provided to the police after an illegal stop led to your arrest for a separate crime, a lawyer may successfully prevent the prosecution from using against you the information you provided in response to the police officer's questioning.

And if you believe that your state allows you to refrain from answering by claiming the protection of the Fifth Amendment, you'll need to know whether that defense is available in your state—an attorney should be able to help you with that question.

A lawyer's skillful negotiation with the prosecutor can sometimes result in a dismissal or reduction of the charges. A local criminal defense attorney, who knows how the prosecutors and judges involved in your case typically handle such cases, can assist with these negotiations. And if you decide to go to trial, having a good lawyer in your corner will be essential.

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