Let’s See Some I.D.
By Maria Luisa Tucker, AlterNet
Posted on December 9, 2005, Printed on December 9, 2005
We humans are generally compliant creatures. We follow the path of
least resistance, even if it’s not to our advantage. We halt at stop
signs even when there are no other cars around for miles. We
unquestioningly accept the small “service fee” tacked on to our bills
without knowing exactly what they are for. We are sheep who follow the
herd — most of us, most of the time.
This is the story of one rogue sheep.
Davis, a 50-year-old mother of four, is by all accounts an ordinary
woman who worries about ordinary things like her mortgage and the
safety of her middle son, who is a soldier in Iraq. To save money, she
rides the bus to work in Denver, Colorado. That is, she used to ride
the bus to work, until one morning in September when she dared to do
what my favorite bumper sticker urges people to do: Question Authority.
morning, Davis’s bus follows a route through the Denver Federal Center,
a collection of government offices in an area with increased security.
Every morning, officers from the Federal Protective Services, a branch
of the Department of Homeland Security, board the bus and check the IDs
of all passengers, whether or not they are exiting the bus at the
Federal Center. Davis found it odd and irritating that she had to get
out her ID just so an officer could glance at it; not even checking it
against a “no ride” list or, maybe, a “no exiting at the Denver Federal
One September morning she decided to stop being so compliant. And that’s where the story gets interesting.
Davis says her discussion with the officer went basically like this:
Officer: “Do you have your ID?”
Officer: “May I see it?”
debate ensued — officers would later describe Davis as “argumentative”
— and then the Federal Protective Services cops tossed Davis’s cell
phone, physically forced her off the bus, handcuffed her and took her
into custody. Ultimately, she was ticketed for violating two
mundane-sounding federal regulations regarding compliance with signs
and access to federal property.
“I just want to be able to ride a
public bus,” Davis said. “This is about freedom to travel.” She felt
the ID check was more about submission than security, and so she
decided to dispute the ticket. The American Civil Liberties Union of
Colorado took up her case, along with an organization called the
Identity Project, which fights for citizens to maintain the right to
travel freely in the U.S.
“It took [the officers] two hours to
try to figure out what regulations to write on the ticket. They had to
go look for what to charge her with,” said Mark Silverstein, legal
director of the ACLU of Colorado. The charge that Davis failed to obey
signs, Silverstein said, “begs the question” of whether officers only
have the authority to make people show ID if there are signs alerting
the public to that possibility.
Silverstein says the ACLU was
interested in Deborah Davis’s case because it exemplified the type of
measures that infringe on citizens’ privacy and freedom; measures
justified by a post-9/11 government in the name of fighting terrorism.
ACLU wants to question some of these measures that we believe are not
really justified in order to fight terrorism,” Silverstein said. “We
think a number of questions need to be asked. Does [a specific measure]
actually advance safety? And if it does, how much does it infringe on
citizen’s right to privacy? In Davis’s case, you don’t even get past
the first question. The ID check on the bus doesn’t do anything to
enhance safety. They don’t check to make sure it is a valid ID. They
don’t even check the names against a pre-determined list of suspicious
Almost immediately, Davis’s case became a cause celebre
among the active but small contingent of Coloradoans fighting invasive
security measures. When the Identity Project posted Davis’s story on
its website, PapersPlease.org, it received more than 1.5 million visitors in the first few days, and Davis received tons of supportive emails.
gives me a lot of hope. People have come out of the woodwork. People do
care,” Davis said, adding that she had no idea so many people would
Davis’s civil liberties dispute drew support from
both Libertarian-leaning conservatives and liberal Democrats. “This is
the first time I’ve seen people across the political spectrum really
getting it,” said Bill Scannell, media liasion for the Identity
Project. “It has always been the right that has been way better on
privacy rights than the left, but now the liberals and the left are
really waking up to how dangerous all this stuff really is.”
the intensity of the media attention mounted, the case against Davis
crumbled. On Wednesday, just two days before her scheduled arraignment,
the U.S. Attorney’s office decided to drop the charges due to a
“technicality” regarding the official signs that Davis was supposedly
disobeying by refusing to show her ID. Jeff Dorschner, spokesman for
the U.S. attorney’s office in Denver, would not say whether any changes
in the signs were planned, or if Federal Protective Services officers
would ticket Davis again if she refused to show ID on the bus. A
spokesperson from the Federal Protective Services was not immediately
available to comment.
“If they continue arresting people they
will probably find themselves back in court,” said Scannell. “This
isn’t about one woman getting uppity and getting her way, this is about
making things better for everyone.”
Davis’s story has inspired rather dramatic comparisons to Nazi Germany,
and the bus boycott begun by Rosa Parks. For most of us, though,
Davis’s experience evokes not a cataclysmic drama, but a sense of
mundane recognition. If a police offier, security guard, or anyone else
reeking of officialdom demands something, we usually give it up.
Sometimes, this gives us a possibly false sense of security that our
public buses, subways and airlines are safer. But at other times, it
feels like we are being given a lesson in passivity, and submitting to
an unnecessary reach into our privacy that may be worth protesting
When can you question authority without getting
handcuffed and taken away? Unfortunately, there is no clear answer,
despite a handful of recent cases that have tested the limits of law
enforcement’s right to demand ID.
Take, for example, the case of
Dudley Hiibel, which is also spotlighted by the Identity Project.
Hiibel, a cowboy type living in Nevada, was stopped in May 2000 by a
Humboldt County sheriff’s deputy when a passerby called in a possible
domestic violence incident after seeing Hiibel and his teenage daughter
in a heated argument while driving. By the time the deputy showed up,
Hiibel had pulled over to the side of the road, and was standing
outside talking to his daughter, Mimi. The sheriff’s deputy approached,
said he’d heard there had been some trouble, and asked to see
Hiibel repeatedly asked why he had to show ID and
refused, finally saying, “No, just take me to jail.” And that’s exactly
what deputies did — that is, after throwing Hiibel’s daughter on the
ground and cuffing her, too, when she began to protest her father’s
arrest. (Video footage of the arrest is available on PapersPlease.org.)
Hiibel was never charged with domestic violence or resisting arrest. He
was fined $250 for refusing to identify himself to police. Hiibel went
to court to challenge the Nevada law that allows police to demand
identification pretty much whenever they want, arguing that demanding
ID without reasonable cause violated his Fourth and Fifth Amendment
rights. You remember those: no unreasonable search and seizure and the
right to remain silent so you don’t incriminate yourself.
case eventually made it up to the Supreme Court, which upheld the
Nevada law requiring people who are stopped under “suspicious
circumstances” to identify themselves to a police officer. However, the
Supreme Court made one exception to that law — you do not have to identify yourself if simply giving your name is incriminating.
This presents a tremendous catch-22. What do police officers do with
someone who refuses to identify himself citing his Fifth Amendment
right not to incriminate himself?
Imagine one possible scenario.
A police officer stops a man who is suspiciously lurking behind a
dumpster at 3am. The following conversation ensues:
Cop: What’re you doing back there, mister?
Mister: Just hangin’ out.
Cop: Okay. Can I see some ID?
Mister: Nope. I have a legal right not to identify myself. The Supreme Court said so.
Cop: And why’s that?
Mister: Because if I tell you who I am, I would be incriminating myself.
Cop: Uh, hmm. All right then, I guess I’ll let you go with a warning. Don’t do anything suspicious again.
I don’t think that will — or should — happen. It is bad policing and
bad policy. Under any circumstance, it remains unclear what the legal
consequences are for refusing to identify yourself, whether you are
incriminating yourself or not. At least 19 other states have similar
laws requiring people to show identification if they are stopped under
suspicious circumstances, which means thousands of law enforcement
officers must attempt to comply with this confusing decision.
for Davis, Thursday morning she was back on the bus, riding with
friends and supporters in a victory lap through the Denver Federal
Center. If the Federal Protective Services officers ask again for ID,
chances are she won’t comply. Asked whether she was prepared to go to
jail for this cause, Davis said, “If that’s what it takes, absolutely.”