by Max Brantley
ACLU NEWS RELEASE
ACLU of Arkansas Says Criminal Charges Against Woman for Failure to Give Name to Police Unconstitutional, Properly Dismissed
Police Overstep Bounds in Demanding Identification Without Law Enforcement Purpose
Little Rock, Arkansas – The American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas praised yesterday’s court decision to dismiss charges against a woman charged with obstruction of governmental operations for failing to immediately identify herself to police. Pulaski County District Judge Wayne Gruber said police had no legitimate governmental purpose when they demanded Jana Baldridge’s identification.
In March, Baldridge was awakened at her home by a stranger, later identified as process server Gary Thrasher, who was looking for a former resident. When Baldridge told Thrasher that the woman he sought did not live there, he demanded Baldridge’s name. She declined, saying she did not know him and did not want to identify herself. Thrasher refused to identify himself or his business there and called the police. Officers with the Pulaski County Sheriff’s Department came to Baldridge’s residence, ran her license plate through their system, and went to her door to demand her name.
Ignoring Baldridge’s attempt to report what had occurred, officers too demanded Baldridge identify herself. Baldridge retrieved her driver’s license and as she approached the front storm door of her house a deputy opened the door and grabbed the license out of her hand. The deputy called her drivers’ license into dispatch, then handed the license to Thrasher, whose identity was still unknown to Baldridge. Deputies confirmed that Baldridge’s name matched her identification and her car, yet charged her with obstruction of governmental operations, noting that the charge could mean one year in prison. The deputy handed Baldridge a citation along with a sheet of paper identifying the unknown man as Gary Thrasher.
Baldridge was represented by attorney Randy Satterfield, who was assisted by the ACLU of Arkansas. After a trial in Pulaski County District Court Wednesday, charges against Baldridge were dismissed.
Arkansas law makes it a criminal offense to knowingly obstruct, impair, or hinder the performance of any governmental function, and a person in violation of that provision may receive up to a one year sentence or $1000.00 fine. Arkansas law also states that a law enforcement officer may request any person to furnish information or otherwise cooperate in the investigation or prevention of crime, including requesting that a person respond to questions, though no law enforcement officer shall indicate that a person is legally obligated to furnish information or to otherwise cooperate if no such legal obligation exists. Even though Arkansas is one of the states that has a statute requiring person(s) to identify themselves during a valid police stop, i.e. they must be suspected of criminal activity and that suspicion must be supported by reasonable suspicion.
In 2004, the United States Supreme Court upheld a similar Nevada law requiring people to give their names to police under a state statute (Hiibel v. Sixth Judicial District Court, 542 U.S. 177). On April 4, 2008, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit decided a case involving the Arkansas State Police in which the person asked to identify himself was suspected of no crime and refused to give his name to police. The Eighth Circuit held that Arkansas law does not, “permit a police officer to arrest a person for refusing to identify himself when he is not suspected of other criminal activity, and his identity is not needed to protect officer safety or to resolve whatever reasonable suspicions prompted the officer to initiative an on-going [legal stop.]” [emph. added]. Noting that Arkansas Rules of Criminal Procedure prohibit an officer from indicating that a person is legally obligated to furnish information if no such obligation exists, the Court held that the arrest for refusing to give his name to police was unlawful, as was the officer’s demand.
“The Supreme Court said that officers cannot arrest a person for refusing to give their name if the person is not suspected of any criminal activity,” said ACLU of Arkansas staff attorney Holly Dickson, “or if the request is unrelated to the reason for an initial lawful stop by an officer. Furthermore, in our country it is illegal for police to demand that you identify yourself when they have no legitimate reason for so doing,” Dickson said.
Jana Baldridge still can’t believe the chain of events which led to criminal charges against her. “I would like the general public of the State of Arkansas to hear about this so if they are ever in this situation, they will know that it is not right for innocent citizens suspected of nothing to be harassed by a process server or by police.” Baldridge filed a complaint with the Pulaski County Sheriff’s Department regarding the incident but has not received a written response. She also intends to file a complaint with the Bail Bond Licensing Board.