Saturday, May 30, 2015

Know Your Rights! Can You Legally Avoid Showing Your ID To A Police Officer?

BARSTOW - For many years Johnny Carson had a joke that went something like this: What do you call the bathroom between Los Angeles and Las Vegas? Barstow!

Barstow has been the punchline of many jokes. It seemed in some 1980s sitcoms the characters on the way to Las Vegas often broke down in Barstow.

In the 1990s in the Saved By The Bell wedding episode, where Zack and Kelly finally get married in Las Vegas, Zack, Slater and Screech encounter some problems on the way to Las Vegas with the local police in Barstow locking up the high school pals.

On screen it seems Barstow is a place of bad luck and amusing jokes, but in the last week there has been a very "in real life" event in Barstow, which has brought questions of personal rights when encountering law enforcement.

 photo 640px-Handcuffs01_2008-07-27.jpg
A photograph of handcuffs used under a Creative Commons License.

This past week Barstow and its police force were in the national news spotlight when a Barstow Police officer roughed up and arrested a pregnant woman who refused to show the officer her identification.

In our occasional series called, Know Your Rights, the question asked in all this is, can you legally refuse to show a law enforcement officer your identification if the officer asks for it? 

Before we go much further let us announce our legal disclaimer: The information about when you can and cannot show a law enforcement officer your identification is for general information purposes only and should not be taken as any kind of formal legal advice for any individual case or situation. If you find yourself in some legal trouble contact an attorney.

So, Can I Refuse To Show A Police Officer My ID?

The answer is this, if you are in California and you are NOT suspected of a crime you have no obligation to identify yourself. Furthermore, even if law enforcement is conducting an investigation the law enforcement officer cannot simply require you to provide your identification for no reason.

If I Refuse To Show My ID To Police Will I Be Arrested?

The simple answer would be, and should always be, no, and you would not be arrested. However, as many cases have been documented, many people have been arrested simply for refusing to show their identification to law enforcement. If you are arrested for simply refusing to show your identification that is considered to be a wrongful arrest. Again, if you are arrested for this reason alone you should contact an attorney.

What If I Am Outside of California?

Notice the words above, "If you are in California..." That is an important point, because if you are a Southern Californian, or Northern Californian, in another state there are different laws, rules and procedures when it comes to being compelled to show a law enforcement officer your identification. In some states you may be required to show your identification when asked by law enforcement, but not in California.

What Protects My Right In Refusing To Show My ID To Police?

The simply answer to this is, The Fourth Amendment, which states in part, "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause..."

So, When Am I Required To Show Police My ID?

There are basically two times you are required to show your identification to law enforcement.

The first, if you are driving and pulled over you are required to show your identification, because, well, law enforcement needs to make sure you are licensed to drive. Remember, as it points out in the Department of Motor Vehicles' California Driver Handbook, driving is a privilege, not a right. Part of that privilege is sometimes when asked you need to show you are a licensed driver.

The second, if you are arrested and booked then you are required show your identification.

The Bottom Line

In California, unless you are behind the wheel driving and pulled over or been arrested, you typically have a right not to show your identification to a law enforcement officer.


  1. As far as I remember, you should never try to argue with cops or must cooperate with them as this behaviour can really go against you at the time of hearing. My sister works with a DUI attorney Los Angeles and often tells me how not cooperating with cops can land you in deeper mess than you ever thought.