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What's in a name?

By Allan Bormel
web posted December 15, 2003

There is a case that will be heard by the US Supreme Court that promises to be extremely divisive – and incredibly important. A deputy sheriff near Winnemucca, Nevada received a call that a man in a pickup truck was hitting a woman. He responded to the area to find a pickup truck on the side of the road with a woman inside and a man standing outside. The officer stopped to investigate. He asked the man for his name – eleven times. When the man, later identified as Larry Hiibel, refused to give his name or provide any form of identification he was taken into custody. He was charged with resisting a police officer and obstructing an investigation by refusing to give his name.

Incredibly, this case went all the way to the Nevada Supreme Court because Larry Hiibel and his many supporters believe it violates one's right to privacy to be forced to give one's name when one doesn't want to – even to the police. The Nevada Supreme Court upheld Hiibel's conviction and a $250 fine.

Remember the police didn't stop Hiibel randomly, they were investigating a complaint and Hiibel fit the description. Yet three dissenting Nevada Supreme Court Justices thought that compelling Hiibel to identify himself violated his Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

Many people – wrongly I think – cite this case as another example of the erosion of our civil liberties. If the police lose the right to identify people reported as suspects or acting suspiciously, the thin blue line between relative peace and anarchy would truly be erased.

Oddly, this case may revolve around movement. No one questions law enforcement's right to ask for identification during a traffic stop. Because Hiibel was already stopped, and outside his vehicle, some civil libertarians maintain his right to withhold his name is sacrosanct.

In the majority decision, Nevada Justice Cliff Young wrote that the "right to be let alone – to simply live in privacy" is sacred, but that it is not absolute. Young and two other justices said that the "intrusion on privacy" made by police seeking identification is "outweighed by the benefits to officers and community safety." No one would condone the police asking for identification willy-nilly or en masse, but when appropriate, as when investigating a complaint, it is an absolutely necessary law enforcement tool.

It is astounding that some people want to make it easier for murderers, rapists, drug runners, and terrorists to walk and plan among us. I cherish civil liberties. But some so-called civil libertarians exaggerate so wildly – characterize every law enforcement tool as a shredding of the constitution – that the safety of honest citizens suffers.

Skepticism of one's government is healthy. Oversight of law enforcement is prudent. Propagating irrational fear of the police is unwarranted and inflammatory.

The Fourth Amendment guarantees "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures. . ." The Fifth Amendment guarantees one not ". . . be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law. . ." To judge that giving one's name to a police officer would violate either of these rights would be a torturous parsing of the Constitution.

Allan Bormel, a retired small businessman, is embarking on a new career as a freelance opinion columnist.

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