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Can You Refuse to Identify Yourself to Police Officers?

By Brett Snider, Esq. | Last updated on

When police ask you to identify yourself, what are your legal options?

In the most practical sense, refusing to identify yourself seems like a surefire way to get on a cop's bad side. Just ask "Django Unchained" actress Daniele Watts, who was cuffed on Thursday after refusing to identify herself to the LAPD (she was not arrested, however).

You may believe that your privacy rights allow you to walk the street anonymously, but is that true in all situations? Here's what you need to know about when you can refuse to identify yourself to police officers:

Showing Your ID Is Not Always Required (Though in Some Cases, It Is)

It may seem like a small distinction, but there's a big legal difference between refusing to give a police officer a driver's license or ID card and identifying yourself. While a driver's license or passport may be the easiest and most practical way to identify yourself to a police officer, you are not required to carry either if you are simply walking the streets.

There are exceptions to this general rule for carrying ID of course. If you do not provide an officer with a driver's license when being pulled over and driving a vehicle, you may be charged with driving without a license. You will likely also be required to show a form of government ID when passing through international borders or airport security. In some states, you may be required to show a photo ID in order to vote.

However, if you're not driving, traveling, or voting, you shouldn't be legally required to have an ID on you -- much less present it to an officer.

So here's where the distinction becomes relevant: You may be required to give your full legal name to police if they ask. In a handful of states, there is a legal obligation to provide your legal name to officers when they request it.

In Ohio, for example, criminal suspects and witnesses to crimes may spend up to 30 days in jail for not disclosing their names to officers who request them. In Indiana, the punishment may be up to 60 days in jail for suspects who refuse to provide either a driver's license or a name, address, and date of birth.

In any state, you may rely on your right to refuse to answer police questions, although you may have to call your criminal attorney to get recognition of your legal rights.

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