You are engaged in public evangelism and/or ministry outside of an abortuary. An officer arrives and asks for your identification. What should you do?
There continues to be some confusion among street evangelists and abortion abolitionists regarding when or if one is required to show a police officer a form of identification when asked to do so. In this article, I cannot address every conceivable scenario or explain every related American municipal, county, or state law related to the issue. However, I hope to better educate and equip my Christian brethren who are on the streets and outside abortuaries on the topic.
To be clear: what I present in this article is not legal advice. My intent is to provide information with the hope that someone reading this might avoid finding himself or herself in the back seat of a patrol car with a free ride to the Gray Bar Hotel.
If you are asked by an officer for your identification, the first words out of your mouth should never be: “But Tony said…” Check the laws in your state. Take what you learn in this article and compare it to other legitimate sources.
As you read this, please keep in mind that the best response to an officer in any given situation may not be the assertion or relinquishing of your legal rights. Wisdom from above, as expressed in God’s Word, as well as the needs of the moment, might dictate doing the opposite of what the legal world would tell you, what your Christian brethren on-scene might tell you, or what armchair quarterbacks on social media insist you should have done. While some situations might be similar, rarely are they identical.
I’ve Been on Both Sides
As many of you know, I have a background in law enforcement. I served for 20 years with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. Needless to say, I’ve asked a lot of people for their identification, in many different situations. I’ve searched people, vehicles, backpacks, homes, and other places looking for identification. I arrested a number of people for either refusing to provide identification or for providing false identification. Additionally, I asked many people for identification who were under no legal obligation to give it to me. I didn’t violate their rights.
So, I’ve been on that side of the law.
I’ve been on the other side, too.
I’ve been arrested or cited four times while engaged in street evangelism or abortuary ministry (England, Scotland, and twice in Iowa). There are no trophies on my mantle. I’ve been asked for my identification by police officers in many different states and a few foreign countries. I’ve asked officers why they wanted to see my identification and I’ve told officers that I wasn’t obligated to show them my identification.
I have never refused to show an officer my identification. More about that later.
Twenty years behind the badge and 16 years on the streets as an evangelist has given me what I hope is enough experience and credibility to write this article. Certainly, there are people more qualified to write an article like this, but here we are.
Let’s begin with a quick lesson on the different kinds of contact with law enforcement.
Different Types of Contact with Law Enforcement
Note: For purposes of this article, all types of police contacts referenced do not take into account contacts involving the driver and/or occupants of vehicles.
Note: I am addressing this topic from the context of life in the United States. Laws in other countries vary widely and wildly.
There are three primary contacts with law enforcement. They are consensual encounters, investigatory stops or detentions, and arrests.
A consensual encounter occurs when an officer approaches someone and initiates a conversation. The officer does so without restricting the person’s movement, gives no commands, and makes no demands. An officer needs no reason and is not obligated to articulate one when making a consensual encounter.
Example: You are standing outside of Planned Parenthood, holding a sign, and distributing literature to passers-by. A police officer pulls up to the curb and stops. He leans out the window and says, “Good morning! How are you doing today?” The officer has taken no police action. He’s not questioning you about possible criminal activity. You’re not the subject of an investigation. And he’s not giving you instructions or commands. You’re free to move about or leave the area.
The Investigatory Stop or Investigatory Detention is also known as a “Terry Stop.” It derives its name from a 1968 court case, Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968). In this Supreme Court case, the court ruled that police can briefly detain a person if they have reasonable suspicion that the person is or has been involved in criminal activity.
A contact moves from a consensual encounter to detention when the person contacted is under investigation and is not free to leave. “In order for a police officer to detain a person for investigation, the officer must have reasonable suspicion that the person has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a crime” (source).
Example: An officer receives an assault call. The caller told the dispatcher that a man preaching on the sidewalk outside a restaurant inappropriately and unwantedly touched her as she walked by. The officer arrives and sees that the man preaching matches the description of the suspect mentioned in the call.
The officer contacts the alleged victim and hears her side of the story. He then contacts the preacher, asks him to step down from his box, and begins to question him about the incident. Based on the information he received in the call, coupled with the statements of the alleged victim, the officer has at least a reasonable suspicion that a crime occurred and that the preacher committed it. The officer exerted authority over the preacher by giving him commands and he began to question the preacher about an alleged crime.
(Something similar to this happened to a preacher I know. Had he not had a video of the entire encounter with the woman, which showed he never touched her, he likely would have been arrested.)
There are two primary categories of arrest: custodial and non-custodial.
A custodial arrest occurs when an officer has probable cause, which is a higher legal standard than reasonable suspicion, to believe a crime occurred and the person he detained committed the crime. The person is taken into custody, transported to the station or jail, and booked. Upon completion of the booking process, the suspect is either released on a citation or own recognizance, posts bail, or is held in custody pending arraignment.
A non-custodial arrest also requires probable cause but does not result in the suspect being transported to the station or jail and booked. In this case, the officer issues a citation for a lower-level crime, such as an infraction of a misdemeanor. The suspect is released at the scene after signing a promise to appear in court, usually 30-60 days from the date of the citation.
Example: An officer receives a call of a disturbance at an abortuary. The informant/complainant reports that a man is yelling and is waking up the neighborhood. The officer arrives to find a man reading a Bible and preaching a few feet away from the door to the abortuary. The officer could hear the man from a distance. The officer contacts the informant who said he was awakened by the preacher and that it caused him distress.
The officer contacts the preacher and asks him to stop preaching. The preacher refuses. The officer asks the preacher to walk to his patrol car where he detains the preacher and issues him a misdemeanor citation for disorderly conduct. He allowed the preacher to leave with the warning that if he receives another complaint he would take the preacher to jail. The officer made a non-custodial arrest of the preacher.
Now, let’s consider when in the three before-mentioned contacts with the police you must present your identification upon request.
When You Must Present Your Identification to an Officer
Of the three before-mentioned types of police contact, there is only one in which you never have to show your identification–the consensual encounter.
Reminder: the above statement applies to the United States.
At least for the moment: citizens living in the United States are not required to hand over their documents when the police say, “Show me your papers” (insert voice of evil-sounding Gestapo agent). That is, American citizens are not required to identify themselves to law enforcement when officers ask for identification without due and legal cause.
Example: You’re walking through the park distributing gospel tracts. You see an officer driving slowly through the park. You make eye contact with each other. The officer stops, exits his vehicle, and walks toward you. Putting two-and-two together, you stop walking and wait for the officer.
The officer smiles and says, “Hi! How are you doing today?”
“Oh, just fine, officer.”
“Great. Well, I’m Officer Jones and I just wanted to introduce myself. And your name is?”
With an extended hand, the officer says, “Nice to meet you, Tony. Have a good day.”
The officer continues walking through the park and introducing himself to other people.
This was a consensual encounter. “But the officer asked for the person’s name?” Yes, he did, as part of a casual conversation. The officer made no demands for the person’s name, address, or form of identification.
Now, let’s say Officer Jones said, “Hi! How are you doing today? Can I see your identification?”
“Oh, you know; you’re an adult in the park and there are kids playing here. So, I just want to check you out.”
“Have I violated the law, officer?”
“No. I just want to know who you are and make sure you don’t have any warrants.”
For the sake of the above scenario, the officer did not come to the park on a call. He has no reasonable suspicion that you are or have been involved in criminal activity (what in law enforcement vernacular is an “obs”–short for observation). He is simply curious as to who you are.
The officer does not have the legal authority to demand your identification. In this case, he wrongly turned a consensual encounter into an investigatory detention.
However, if you are the subject of a call regarding criminal activity or the officer observes you engaged in what he reasonably suspects or has probable cause to believe is criminal activity, then he can demand to see your identification.
The Hiibel Case and Identification
Laura Scarry wrote a very helpful article regarding an important court case, Hiibel v. Sixth Judicial District Court, 124 S.Ct. 2541, 2546 (2004). This case directly addresses the issue of when a person is required to show identification to a police officer. You can read the entire article, here.
In her conclusion, Scarry wrote:
“In sum, Hiibel holds a state may criminalize a refusal to produce identification as long as the detention is predicated on a valid Terry stop (i.e., reasonable suspicion). In other words, police officers do not violate the Fourth Amendment when they arrest an individual after the individual refuses to provide identification during a lawful detention pursuant to their state’s stop-and-identify statute. Certainly, it should come as no surprise that the remaining state legislatures might enact similar stop-and-identify statutes. No doubt such enactments provide law enforcement with another important tool to ensure officer safety during brief and seemingly innocuous encounters.”
The Hiibel case specifically dealt with a state (Nevada) that has a “stop and identify” law. The court ruled that Nevada’s law was constitutional.
How many other states have laws like Nevada?
States with “Stop and Identify” Laws
There are 23 states that have “Stop and Identify” laws. They are:
Do you see your state on the list? No? Are you excited? Do you think an officer can’t require you to show identification? Think again.
While there are 28 states that do not have “stop and identify” laws, including mine (Iowa), this doesn’t mean that officers can’t, under certain circumstances, demand to see your identification.
Terry, Hiibel, and Identification
As noted above, the decision in the Terry case allows for officers to conduct investigatory detentions so long as they have a reasonable suspicion that a crime occurred. In Hiibel, the court ruled that during a lawful Terry Stop, it is reasonable for an officer to ask for identification as part of the normal course of his investigation.
Again, from Laura Scarry’s helpful article:
“The court observed that asking questions is an essential part of police investigations. It further stated that asking a question relating to one’s identity or a request for identification by the police does not, by itself, violate the Fourth Amendment: ‘[Q]uestions concerning a suspect’s identity are a routine and accepted part of many Terry stops.'”
Therefore, whether or not a state has a specific “stop and identify” law, an officer can still lawfully ask for your identification if he has reasonable suspicion or probable cause to believe you either have been or are presently involved in criminal activity.
If you live in one of the above-listed 22 states and you refuse to identify yourself during an investigative detention, the officer can arrest you for violation of the “stop and identify” statute. If you live in one of the other 28 states and you refuse to identify yourself during an investigative detention, the officer can still arrest you. The likely charge will be resisting/obstructing an officer.
Your State of Mind is Irrelevant
The last time I was placed under non-custodial arrest and issued a citation was February 27, 2020. It occurred outside the Emma Goldman abortuary in Iowa City, IA. The arresting/citing officer and I had a respectful but spirited conversation about my right to continue my activity. I did not believe then and I do not believe now that I was violating the law. I did not believe then and do not believe now that the officer had reasonable suspicion to detain me, let alone probable cause to arrest me.
My state of mind was not relevant to whether or not the officer had the authority to ask for my identification. That I believed I had done and was doing nothing wrong didn’t matter. My understanding or interpretation of the law didn’t matter. What mattered was the officer’s state of mind. What mattered was his authority. What mattered is that he received a call for service. He observed activity by me that he believed was a violation of the law. He had a complainant. He had his own observations. In his mind, he had reasonable suspicion to detain me and probable cause to arrest me. Asking for my identification was a reasonable investigative inquiry on his part, considering the circumstances.
Had I refused to show the officer my identification, he would have been within his authority to arrest me for obstructing an officer in his duties (IC 719.1), even though my state does not have a specific “stop and identify” law. The officer’s contact with me was not a consensual encounter. It was an investigative stop/detention. I was obligated to show him my identification when he asked for it.
“Am I Being Detained, Officer?”
The line between showing your identification to an officer and not showing it is the line between consensual encounters and investigatory detentions.
The best way to determine if you are being detained is to ask the simple and legitimate question: “Am I being detained, officer?” If the answer is “no,” then you are likely not required to show the officer your identification if he asks for it. If the answer is “yes,” then you are likely required to show the officer your identification if he asks for it.
Why I Always Show My Identification
My personal policy is this: if an officer asks to see my identification while I am engaged in street or abortuary ministry, I oblige. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred (and yes, I’ve had at least that many contacts with law enforcement during the last 16 years of street and abortuary ministry), if an officer contacts me, it’s because he’s received a call for service. He’s been called because of either where I am preaching, how I am preaching (amplification), or when I am preaching. Or, someone called and lied about what I was doing and/or saying (i.e. blocking the sidewalk/driveway, harassment, etc.). Either way, the officer was likely called and will have to conduct an investigation, no matter how brief, into an activity about which he could care less. Most officers don’t want to deal with a street preacher or an abortion “protester” call.
Maybe it’s because I know what life is like on that side of the badge. But what do I stand to gain, really, by sweating the officer about seeing my identification? If I hassle the officer about giving him my identification, do you think he might remember that the next time he gets called to the abortuary or my street fishing spot? Do you think he’ll roll to the next call in which I am the subject thinking, “Great. It’s that Tony character. This won’t go well.”
Or might I, Christ, and His gospel be better served if I cooperate with the officer’s reasonable request, even if in a given situation the request might not be valid?
Look; if an officer rolls up on me and without explanation and with no indication he received a call and he demands to see my identification, we’re going to have a respectful conversation about the reason why he wants to see my identification. “Officer, did you receive a call about me? Did someone complain? I’m not blocking the sidewalk and I’m not using amplification. How can I help you?” It might go something like that.
My goal in every contact with law enforcement is to win the officer to my side. I’m going to do that by assuring the officer that he’s in charge. To the extent that I can, I will submit to his authority. And I will show him by my behavior and demeanor that I’m not the caricature he might have in his mind of the Christian street evangelist. If handing the officer my identification, even in a situation in which I might not be required to do so, deescalates the contact and wins the officer to my side, so be it.
Something as small as giving an officer my identification (and every situation is different, I know) has the potential of establishing rapport, respect, and credibility with the officer. Over time, such relational equity can become very valuable. I’ve experienced it, firsthand.
I’ve had initial contact with officers during which the officers were professional but curt. They weren’t interested in dialogue and preferred I simply left the area. Veiled threats of future citations were not uncommon during some of these initial contacts. By the second or third contact, the officers greeted me with, “Hi, Tony.” After that, the only time they got out of the car was to ask how I was doing and to inquire if anyone was bothering me, even though someone called to complain about my activity.
Carry Your Identification!
There are some street evangelists who refuse to carry their identification with them while engaged in street and/or abortuary ministry. This is foolish–plain and simple. Ministering outside an abortuary without identification is about as stupid as ministering outside an abortuary while carrying a gun (yes, there are evangelists who do that).
If you find yourself in a situation in which an officer is going to issue you a citation and you do not have your identification, you will likely force the officer to take you into custody and book you at the station. And there you will stay until you can be properly identified. News Flash: people lie to police officers about their identity. Identity theft not only happens when people don’t shred important papers. It also happens when people give false names to police officers. A good cop isn’t going to take your word for it (unless he personally knows you) when he’s filling out the citation.
Carry your identification with you when you’re on the streets or outside abortuaries engaged in ministry. You could spare yourself an unnecessary night in jail. And it will be easier to identify your body if God calls you home while you’re out there.
I hope this article has provided useful information to my Christian brethren who are risking comfort, freedom, and sometimes even their lives as they take the gospel to the streets and to abortuaries.
Knowing when you are likely required to show your identification to a police officer can help you avoid unnecessary conflict with officers and may even help you to establish relational equity with officers that you might be able to cash in at a later date.
And check your heart. If an officer asks to see your identification, especially if he is called to a location to investigate your activity, and your first thought is to question his authority, from where does that thought come? It might come from a legitimate place of wanting to right a wrong (See Acts 22:22-29; 25:11). But it might come from somewhere else. It might come from a prideful and rebellious spirit (See Ezekiel 2:8; Proverbs 11:2; 16:18; Psalm 31:23; 1 John 2:16).
I can’t answer that for you.
You already know the answer.
In the end, even something like showing or not showing your identification to a police officer should be done to the glory of God. Remember that.