Traffic Stop 101: Stop and Identify Laws

By NMA Texas Member Ted Levitt   

I want to impart some information here about traffic stops, and before I do that, I want to tell a story about a traffic stop I saw recently on television. I will not get into the validity (or not) of the Sovereign Citizen Movement here, but I do know this is not an available defense for anything under the law.

Here’s the Story

On one of those reality TV Cop shows, I recently witnessed an interaction between a driver and a police officer who had stopped the driver because his vehicle had a handmade license plate. The plate number didn’t match the car.

When the officer approached the driver and asked to see his driver’s license, proof of insurance, and registration, the driver claimed not to be driving but just “traveling.”

The driver then told the officer he did not have the authority to make him identify himself or show any of the other documents the officer requested. The driver then went on to say he was a “Sovereign Citizen” and quoted his Fifth Amendment Rights.

The officer then says to the driver, “You are operating a motor vehicle on a public highway and need to show me the items I asked for.”

The guy continues to argue with the officer and locks himself in the car and won’t comply with any of the officer’s requests. The police end up breaking his car window and sending a dog into the car, dragging the guy out and arresting him for multiple offenses.

Don’t let this be you.

Information about Stop and Identify Laws

“Stop and Identify” laws exist in 24 states:

Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri (Kansas City only), Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Rhode Island, Utah, Vermont, and Wisconsin.

These laws vary from state-to-state, and it would be wise for everyone to spend some time on a search engine to look for your state’s law plus any other states you plan to visit after the COVID-19 crisis has run its course. Below is just a snapshot of some of the laws.

  • In five states (Arizona, Indiana, Louisiana, Nevada, and Ohio), the law explicitly imposes an obligation to provide identifying information.
  • Fourteen states grant police authority to ask questions, with different wording but do not explicitly impose an obligation to respond.
  • In Montana, police “may request” identifying information.
  • In 12 states (Alabama, Delaware, Illinois, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New York, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Utah, Wisconsin), police “may demand” identifying information.
  • In Colorado, police “may require” identifying information of a person.

Identifying information varies but typically includes:

  • Name
  • Address
  • An explanation of the person’s actions

In some states, the law might also require the driver to state their intended destination, the person’s date of birth (Indiana and Ohio), or written identification if available (Colorado).

Arizona’s law, apparently explicitly written to codify with the case of Hiibel v. Sixth Judicial District of Nevada, 542 US 177 (2004), requires a driver to give his or her “true full name.” (Also, see Terry v. Ohio, 332 US 1 (1968).)

Nevada’s law, which requires a person to “identify himself or herself,” requires only that the person state his or her name.

In five states (Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island), failure to identify oneself is one factor to be considered in a decision to arrest. In all but Rhode Island, the consideration arises in the context of loitering or prowling.

Seven states (Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, New Mexico, Ohio, and Vermont) explicitly impose a criminal penalty for noncompliance with the obligation to identify oneself.

Virginia makes it a non-jailable misdemeanor to refuse to identify oneself to a conservator of the peace when one is at the scene of a breach of the peace witnessed by that conservator.

You are not required in any state to verbally respond to a police officer, (your Fifth Amendment Right against self- incrimination). Still, you must only comply with the statutory requirements of the law, such as nodding or signaling you will comply.

Do not be afraid to ask the officer, “Am I free to go?” or “Am I under arrest?” or “Am I being detained?” Take the time to understand these three terms as they relate to the laws of your state. “A person is “seized” within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment only when, in light of all the surrounding circumstances, a reasonable person would believe that he or she was not free to leave.” United States v. Mendenhall, 446 U.S. 544, (1980).

Remember, your tone of voice and physical actions will work for or against you when responding to a police officer.

In every state, if you are operating a motor vehicle on a public street, road, or highway, you must have with you a valid driver’s license, valid proof of insurance, and in some states, the vehicle’s registration.

If stopped by a police officer while operating a motor vehicle, you are REQUIRED to show those items to the officer upon request. Those requirements fall under each state’s Motor Vehicle Code. Remember, operating a motor vehicle on public roads is a privilege granted by the state in which you hold a license in and not a right guaranteed by the Constitution.

Your rights to freedom of movement and to operate a motor vehicle are limited by state and federal law.

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Leave a Comment

2 Responses to “Traffic Stop 101: Stop and Identify Laws”

  1. Tim Henline says:

    Driving on public roads is NOT a privilege! Get that through your head! Driving is a RIGHT accorded to those who have shown the state (through acceptable testing) that they are qualified to drive a vehicle. “Privilege granted by the State” my ass! Freedom to move about is granted by our
    country’s Constitution.

  2. Eric says:

    Privilege is not a thing in law. Driving is not a privilege any more than any other activity is a privilege. There is a fundamental right to travel and to be left alone. The government can limit those activities only if it has a good reason. That doesn’t make them privileges.