Officer Had No Reason to Demand Identification

by | February 23, 2021

Wingate v. Fulford, 2021 WL 377796 (4th Cir. 2021)

George Wingate pulled over when his check-engine light came on, at approximately 0200. He pulled his car off to the side of the road, left his lights on, popped the hood and began to investigate. Wingate, a former mechanic, examined the motor after getting a bag of tools and placing it on the front seat. Wingate got back in the car and tried to diagnose the issue using an automotive code reader.

A deputy saw Wingate parked on the side of the road and pulled in behind him. The deputy asked Wingate what was going on and where he was going. Wingate explained that he was driving when he experienced some car trouble. The deputy asked for Wingate’s identification. Wingate asked why he had to identify himself and the deputy called for backup.

The deputy told Wingate he had not accused him of committing a crime and he was not being detained, but said, “You’re not free to go until you identify yourself to me.” A supervisor arrived and commented that there had been “a lot of catalytic converter thefts in area,” saying, “It’s kind of weird, it’s 2 o’clock in the morning, and you’re out here on the side of the road in the same area where the businesses have all been hit.”

A valid investigatory stop, supported by reasonable suspicion, is a constitutional prerequisite to enforcing statutes that require a person to provide identification.

Wingate continued to deny he had committed a crime and asked why he had to provide identification. The deputy arrested Wingate for violating a county ordinance making it a crime to refuse a deputy’s request for identification “if the surrounding circumstances are such as to indicate to a reasonable man that the public safety requires such identification.” The prosecutor conceded the arrest was “possibly unconstitutional” and dismissed the charges. Wingate sued; the trial court granted qualified immunity to the deputy and Wingate appealed.

The court of appeals held that the deputy converted what might have been a voluntary encounter into a detention when the deputy told Wingate he was not free to leave until he identified himself. The appellate court held the detention was not supported by reasonable suspicion and that the arrest was unlawful because the county ordinance is unconstitutional when applied outside the context of a valid investigatory stop. The court reversed the trial court grant of qualified immunity for the unconstitutional investigatory stop.

In Hiibel v. Sixth Judicial Dist. Court of Nevada (542 U.S. 177 (2004)) and Brown v. Texas (443 U.S. 47 (1979)), the Supreme Court articulated principles for encounters where an officer may properly demand identification. These cases teach that a valid investigatory stop, supported by reasonable suspicion, is a constitutional prerequisite to enforcing statutes that require a person to provide identification. Otherwise, the officer must either secure purely voluntary cooperation or allow the person to exercise the great right to be left alone.

This blog was featured in our Xiphos newsletter, a monthly legal-focused law enforcement newsletter authored by Ken Wallentine. Subscriptions are free for public safety officers, educators and public attorneys.

KEN WALLENTINE is the Chief of the West Jordan (Utah) Police Department and former Chief of Law Enforcement for the Utah Attorney General. He has served over three decades in public safety, is a legal expert and editor of Xiphos, a monthly national criminal procedure newsletter. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Institute for the Prevention of In-Custody Death and serves as a use of force consultant in state and federal criminal and civil litigation across the nation.

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