During a temporary detention, does a person have a duty to identify himself or herself to the detaining officer? Can a person be arrested for refusing to do so? The answer to both questions is, "Sometimes."
Luckily for all of us, we're not living in a totalitarian regime where we have to produce identification papers on demand of the secret police. On the other hand, some situations arise where police need to know the identity of a person being detained. Identifying suspects, eliminating non-suspects, running warrant checks, enforcing domestic violence restraining orders, and many other law enforcement duties may require that identification be obtained from the person being detained.
The willful failure to produce ID in such circumstances could amount to unlawful obstruction or delay of official duty, which is an arrestable offense in most jurisdictions. In other circumstances, however, ID may not be required, and the refusal to ID may not necessarily support an arrest. Three significant decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court have addressed this issue, including one decision in the 2004 term of the court.
Brown v. Texas
Zackary Brown was stopped by police officers in El Paso one afternoon in 1977, when they saw him walking away from another man in an alley that had a high incidence of narcotics activity. The officers asked Brown to identify himself and explain what he was doing in the area. He refused and was arrested for violating a state statute that required identification upon being lawfully stopped by a peace officer.
The Supreme Court ruled that police reliance upon the "stop and identify" statute "to detain Brown and require him to identify himself violated the Fourth Amendment because the officers lacked any reasonable suspicion to believe he was engaged or had engaged in criminal conduct."
The general guideline that emerges from this ruling is that ID cannot be demanded from a person you have no reasonable suspicion to detain, and the failure to ID in such a case does not provide probable cause for arrest.
Kolender v. Lawson
Also in 1977, officers in San Diego arrested Edward Lawson when he refused to present identification after being stopped for walking at night in areas with high crime rates. The California statute under which Lawson was arrested required a person to provide "credible and reliable" identification to an officer who stopped him, and to account for his presence.
Although the Supreme Court might simply have applied the holding of Brown v. Texas and ruled the detention unlawful under the Fourth Amendment, the court went further, declaring the statute itself unconstitutional. According to the majority, the California statute was "unconstitutionally vague on its face" because it allowed officers the discretion to decide what kind of ID was sufficiently "credible and reliable" to avoid arrest.
As it had in the Brown case, the Supreme Court in the Kolender case sidestepped the issue of whether, and under what circumstances, an arrest for failure to ID might be constitutionally permissible. The answer waited 27 more years.