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Do Passengers Have a Right to Withhold Their Identity?

One of my more controversial blog posts has to to with the issue of officers being allowed to request identification from vehicle passengers.  Both federal and state case law is pretty clear that there is no legal bar to the officer making the request.  In the past, the courts have expressly stated that the officer can request and check passenger identities in the interest of officer safety.

A recent federal district court order was shared at me where those precedents are being re-examined based on the United States Supreme Court Decision in Rodriguez v. United States 575 US 348 (2015).  The case was a civil rights action against a Georgia city and two of its officers for requesting and requiring identification from passengers.

The officers were granted qualified immunity because there was not a clearly established constitutional right of the passengers to refuse to provide identification.  The cases offered by the passengers were held not to have found such a right.  Those were Brown v. Texas (1979) and Hiibel v. Sixth Judicial Dist. Court of Nevada, Humboldt Cty. (2004).  The latter case held that "an officer may not arrest a suspect for failure to identify himself if the request for identification is not reasonably related to the circumstances justifying the stop."  That case was dealing with a driver of a vehicle and did not clearly establish that passengers had a right to refuse to identify themselves.  There were some other cases offered but did not meet Eleventh Circuit criteria for clearly establishing a constitutional right for qualified immunity purposes.

So, the court moved on to the city's liability.  The court found that there was sufficient deposition testimony to create at least a jury question as to the existence of a municipal policy to require passengers to provide identification.  So, that allows the District Court judge to move onto the constitutional question.  

The starting point is that individuals have a right to be free from unreasonable search and seizures under the Fourth Amendment.  The purpose of the constitutional protection is to safeguard the privacy and security of individuals against arbitrary invasions.  What an officer is allowed to do is judged by balancing an individual's Fourth Amendment interests against the promotion of a legitimate governmental interest.

The district court found that the city failed to show how requiring passenger identification enhances the safety or security of officers on the scene.  While a legitimate interest of officer safety supports the ability of officers to require occupants of a vehicle to exit the vehicle, the court found that that reasoning did not apply to requiring identification.  The court found that requiring identification could actually increase the risk of danger to an officer by extending the time of the stop.  Moreover, the requirement of Rodriguez that traffic stops not be expanded beyond its natural duration without other evidence of wrongdoing.

The district court held that the government's interest in identifying passengers of a vehicle stopped for a traffic violation did not outweigh a passenger's interest in privacy.  Summary judgment was denied to the municipality, which would have allowed the case to proceed to trial.  I am told that the city chose to settle the case instead.  

It is important to recognize that this was a claim on behalf of passengers as to whom there was no indication of wrongdoing or any factor that might have justified a need to obtain identification.  There are circumstances where there could be a legitimate governmental need or interest for that information.  To be  sure, those circumstances will not normally be presented in a simple traffic stop.

Sean A. Black

Sean A. Black is a 1992 graduate of the Emory University School of Law. He has been in private practice in Toccoa, Georgia since June 1, 1992.

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