Your papers, please

Next week the U.S. Supreme Court will hear a case to decide whether or not all Americans must have identification on them at all times. The case has been brought by a cowboy in Nevada who was asked to show ID while he was leaning against his pickup truck on the side of the road near his ranch. The police officer did not offer any specific reason why he demanded proof of identity. Having committed no crime, Dudley Hiibel, the cowboy, refused — and was arrested. He was later convicted for “Delaying a Peace Officer.” In America, still a free country, citizens should not be required to provide identification papers at any whim of the authorities.

In the case at hand, Mr. Hiibel gave the arresting officer a chance to justify his request. But when asked why he demanded identification, the sheriff’s deputy said only, “Because I’m investigating.” When asked what he was investigating, the policeman responded with a wisecrack: “I’m investigating an investigation.” The argument before the U.S. Supreme Court is whether requiring identification at any time is a violation of the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures or an invasion of privacy by the government.

In a 4-3 decision, the Nevada Supreme Court ruled against Mr. Hiibel, stating that the Nevada statute requiring identification during a police investigation “strikes a balance between constitutional protections of privacy and the need to protect police officers and the public.” The argument is that police cannot rule out whether or not a stranger is a suspect in a crime until he is identified. In the dissent, Justice Deborah Agosti argues that merely knowing an individual’s identity does not enhance safety. Regarding the Fourth Amendment, she explains, “Anonymity is encompassed within the expectation of privacy, a civil right.” The Fifth Amendment also guarantees the right to remain silent, which can be construed as the right to guard one’s identity.

The cowboy-ID case is timely because of the momentum in the federal government to mandate various kinds of national identification cards. Even some conservatives, such as Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl, support the idea of so-called Social Security cards with biometric identifiers such as retina scans and electronic fingerprints. The Nevada high court’s ruling notes that “the right to wander freely and anonymously, if we so choose, is a fundamental right of privacy in a democratic society.” The openness of the prairie symbolizes this freedom. It would be a shame if cowboys were required to carry a driver’s license to ride a horse while roaming the open range.

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