Correction: Police Can Ask Beavers for Identification

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I might have been a little hasty yesterday when I threatened to start a "Free Beavers" campaign to win the release of Phillip T. Beavers, the guy who was arrested in Utah and then refused to identify himself for about three weeks. I said that "you can't constitutionally be required to show a police officer your ID," but as a couple of readers have pointed out, that's not entirely true.

It is true that the police can't stop you for the sole purpose of checking ID. Brown v. Texas, 443 U.S. 47 (1979). But the Supreme Court later held that so long as there's "reasonable suspicion" of wrongdoing that would justify a stop under Terry v. Ohio in the first place, it's not unconstitutional to require that the person being detained give his or her name. Hiibel v. Sixth District Court of Nevada, 542 U.S. 177 (2004). (In Hiibel, there had been a report of domestic violence – the police video of that encounter is actually available on YouTube if you're interested.) The Nevada law only requires a name, and so It's not settled how much more information, if any, police can constitutionally demand. 

Utah has a similar law (about half the states do), but it requires name, address, and "an explanation of [your] actions." The explanation requirement seems a little problematic — does it have to be a good explanation? (And is it going to be a problem that I prefer to explain myself through interpretive dance? Probably.) But this has not yet been tested in court.

In any event, in the Utah case, Beavers was reportedly loitering in a parking garage and looking in the windows of various cars, and a court would probably find the officers had reasonable suspicion to justify at least a brief stop. (In fact, since I've just learned the garage was the police department's garage and the cars he was looking into were squad cars, I'm pretty sure a court would be fine with this.) And so under Hiibel the demand for his name was constitutional.

Even if the mystery of the name has been solved, police still don't know why he refused to give it. Police said they were sure there was more to the story, but recent reports suggested they were not going to hold him much longer despite the unanswered questions. Deputies said last night that the Beavers family was on its way to pick him up.

In addition to the response from Mr. Beaver's brother, the sheriff's department said it received hundreds of other less helpful e-mails and phone calls. "We had people tell us he was Johnny Carson, D.B. Cooper, [and] Lee Harvey Oswald," an officer said. The Cooper file, at least, is still open … might be worth looking into. You never know.