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Hiibel v. Sixth Judicial District Court of Nevada

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  • Justice John Paul Stevens, 1920-2019: Former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens passed this week. He was 99. EPIC remembers Justice Stevens for his many important opinions on privacy, open government, and the First Amendment. Justice Stevens played a pivotal role in cases concerning the Constitutional right of anonymity. In McIntyre v. Ohio (1995), he wrote for the Court "Under our Constitution, anonymous pamphleteering is not a pernicious, fraudulent practice, but an honorable tradition of advocacy and of dissent. Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority." In Watchtower Bible, a case concerning a permit requirement for pamphleteers, he said for the Court "It is offensive . . . to the very notion of a free society that in the context of everyday public discourse a citizen must first inform the government of her desire to speak to her neighbors and then obtain a permit to do so." And in Hiibel v. Sixth Judicial District (2004), Justice Stevens wrote in dissent opposing a state stop and identify law, "A name can provide the key to a broad array of information about the person, particularly in the hands of a police officer with access to a range of law enforcement databases." Stevens was also a cryptographer for the Navy during World War II. (Jul. 17, 2019)
  • Federal Court Rules Police May Not Compel Passenger ID During Traffic Stop: The Ninth Circuit has ruled that the police violated the Fourth Amendment when they asked a passenger to provide identification. The Court found that "a demand for a passenger's identification is not part of the mission of a traffic stop." As the court explained, "The identity of a passenger...will ordinarily have no relation to a driver's safe operation of a vehicle." EPIC filed a "friend of the court" brief in a similar case before the Supreme Court in 2004. In Hiibel v. Sixth Judicial District, the Supreme Court narrowly upheld a state identification law for the driver of a vehicle. EPIC argued in Hiibel that "A name is now no longer a simple identifier: it is the key to a vast, cross-referenced system of public and private databases, which lay bare the most intimate features of an individual's life." EPIC also filed amicus brief in Watchtower Bible v. Stratton, concerning the right of anonymity. In that case the Supreme Court ruled that an ordinance requiring door-to-door petitioners to obtain a permit and identify themselves violated the First Amendment. (Jan. 22, 2019)
  • Supreme Court Says Federal Immigration Law Trumps Arizona Law, But Upholds Narrow Application of "Papers Please" Provision: In Arizona v. United States, the Supreme Court invalidated much of SB 1070, the controversial Arizona state law. However, the Court upheld a new identification requirement though cautioned that it could be subject to preemption and constitutional challenges after it goes into effect. The provision allows state officers to make a "reasonable attempt" to determine immigration status during the course of "an authorized, lawful detention." Justice Kennedy, writing for the Court, cautioned that the provision might "raise constitutional concerns" as applied, but said that the law "could be read to avoid these concerns." EPIC argued in Hiibel v. Sixth Judicial District Court of Nevada that "stop and identify" statutes are unconstitutional. The Supreme Court upheld the state law in that case in a 5-4 opinion by Justice Kennedy. For more information, see: EPIC: Hiibel v. Sixth Judicial District Court of Nevada and EPIC: Your Papers, Please. (Jun. 25, 2012)
  • Supreme Court Upholds Constitutionality of Arrest for Refusal to Identify. In a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court has narrowly upheld a Nevada law allowing law enforcement to arrest an individual when he refuses to identify himself, and reasonable suspicion--though not probable cause--exists that he has committed a crime. (June 21, 2004)
  • Oral Argument Date Set. The Supreme Court has announced that it will hear oral argument in Hiibel v. Sixth Judicial District Court of Nevada on March 22, 2004. For more information, see the press release (pdf) from the Office of the Nevada State Public Defender. (Jan. 13, 2004)
  • EPIC Files Amicus Brief in Supreme Court ID Case. EPIC, joined by several scholars and technical experts, has filed a "friend of the court" brief (pdf) in Hiibel v. Sixth Judicial District Court of Nevada, a case in which the Supreme Court will determine whether an individual may refuse to identify himself to police when there is no probable cause to arrest. The brief discusses how existing information systems, such as the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) and the Multi-State Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange (MATRIX), may become systems of public surveillance. EPIC is urging the Court to ensure that the police do not use stop-and-frisk situations for fishing expeditions of government computer databases. (Dec. 14, 2003)
  • Supreme Court to Review Nevada ID Law. The Supreme Court announced yesterday that it will consider Hiibel v. Sixth Judicial District Court of Nevada, a case that will determine whether an individual who has not been arrested may refuse to identify himself to a law enforcement officer. EPIC and others will file a "friend of the court" brief. The Court will hear oral arguments in the case early next year. (Oct. 21, 2003)


In Hiibel v. Sixth Judicial District Court of Nevada, the Supreme Court is poised to address the question of whether an individual has the right to refuse to identify himself to a law enforcement officer before arrest. This case implicates a plethora of privacy issues such as Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable government search and seizure, the right to anonymity, and law enforcement accumulation and use of personal information.

Procedural History

This case arises from the arrest of Larry Dudley Hiibel for refusing to identify himself to a law enforcement officer prior to arrest.

A Humboldt Country sheriff's deputy responded to a concerned bystander's phone call reporting that a man had struck a female passenger inside a truck. The officer arrived on the scene and was directed by the citizen to Hiibel standing next to a parked truck with his daughter inside. The officer observed skid marks which led him to believe that the truck had been pulled over "in a sudden and aggressive manner." After speaking to Hiibel and observing his behavior, the officer became suspicious that Hiibel might have been driving while intoxicated. Hiibel refused eleven times to provide identification and was subsequently arrested under Nevada Revised Statute § 171.123(3), which allows an officer to detain a person to ascertain his identity when there are circumstances reasonably indicating that person has committed a crime.

Hiibel was charged with and convicted of resisting a public officer in violation of state law, and he appealed the conviction. The Nevada District Court determined it was reasonable and necessary for the officer to ask for Hiibel's identification, and asserted that the public interest in requiring Hiibel to identify himself outweighed his right to remain silent. Hiibel filed a petition asking the Supreme Court of Nevada review the case, challenging the constitutionality of Nev. Rev. Stat. § 171.123(3).

The Nevada Supreme Court denied the petition, determining that the statute is consistent with the rights against unreasonable search and seizure protected by the Fourth Amendment because it "strikes a balance between constitutional protections of privacy and the need to protect police officers and the public." The court first pointed out that federal appeals courts disagree on the question of whether an individual may refuse to identify himself to an officer before an arrest. Noting that a government invasion of privacy does not violate the Fourth Amendment as long as it is reasonable, the court found that any intrusion of privacy under Nev. Rev. Stat. § 171.123(3) is reasonable when weighed against the benefits to law enforcement and public safety. "Knowing the identity of a suspect allows officers to more accurately evaluate and predict potential dangers that may arise during an investigative stop," the court explained. With regard to the privacy implications of case, the court claimed "[t]o hold that a name, which is neutral and non-incriminating information, is somehow an invasion of privacy is untenable . . . . Requiring identification is far less intrusive than conducting a pat down search of one's physical person," which is permitted by law. The court also found that Nev. Rev. Stat. § 171.123(3) is narrowly written and applies only in situations where an officer has an articulable suspicion that a person is performing criminal behavior, and thus is constitutional.

In a strongly worded dissenting opinion, three Nevada Supreme Court Justices disagreed that the government seizure in this case was reasonable. The dissent first noted that anonymity is included in the right to privacy, which in turn is protected during pre-arrest frisks performed by officers. In such situations, the dissent argued, "[i]t is well known that . . . an officer's authority to search is limited to a pat-down to detect weapons. The officer may investigate a hard object because it might be a gun. An officer may not investigate a soft object he detects, even though it might be drugs. Similarly, an officer may not detect a wallet and remove it for search. With today's majority decision, the officer can now, figuratively, reach in, grab the wallet and pull out the detainee's identification." The dissent then pointed out that the Ninth Circuit federal appeals court not only upholds the right to refuse to provide identification to an officer before arrest, but has specifically found Nev. Rev. Stat. § 171.123(3) unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment. The dissent opinion criticized the majority for "reflexively reasoning that the public interest in police safety outweighs Hiibel's interest in refusing to identify himself," noting that no evidence exists that an officer is safer for knowing a person's identity. "What the majority fails to recognize," the dissenting opinion continued, "is that it is the observable conduct, not the identity, of a person, upon which an officer must legally rely when investigating crimes and enforcing the law."

Hiibel appealed the case to the United States Supreme Court, which granted certiorari on October 20, 2003. Oral argument was held on March 22, 2004. The Supreme Court issued its opinion on June 21, 2004, holding that Nev. Rev. Stat. § 171.123(3) is constitutional under both the Fourth and Fifth Amendments. Justice Kennedy's majority opinion noted, however, "[a]s we understand it, the statute does not require a suspect to give the officer a driver's license or any other document. Provided that the suspect either states his name or communicates it to the office by other means -- a choice, we assume, that the suspect may make -- the statute is satisfied and no violation occurs."

Justices Breyer and Stevens wrote dissenting opinions.

Hiibel has petitioned (pdf) for a rehearing.


Case History

Supreme Court Materials

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