Do I Have to Show the Police My ID?

Several Laws Regulate Whether You Must Identify Yourself When Police Ask

Two police officers interviewing a woman
Robert Nickelsberg / Getty Images

Do you have to show the police your ID? The answer depends on the nature of the interaction and what is going on when you are asked for identification. It's important to note that no law requires U.S. citizens to carry identification at all times. However, identification is required if you drive a vehicle or fly on a commercial airline.

To answer this question, let's first assume that driving a vehicle or flying on a commercial airline is not part of the scenario. In the U.S., three types of interactions generally occur between police and citizens: consensual, detention, and arrest.

Consensual Interview

Police officers are allowed to speak to a person or ask a person questions at any time, and these interactions are called consensual interviews. They might do this to show that they are approachable and friendly or because they have reasonable suspicion (a hunch) or probable cause (facts) that the person is involved in a crime, has information concerning a crime, or has witnessed a crime.

People aren't required to provide legal identification or even their name, address, age, or other personal information during a consensual interview. A person in a consensual interview is free to leave at any time. However, in most states, police officers are not required to inform people that they can leave. Because it's sometimes difficult to tell when interviews are consensual, individuals should politely ask the officer if they're free to go. If the answer is yes, then the exchange was more than likely consensual and the individual is within their rights to leave.

Detention

Detainment is defined as the removal of freedom. In most states, the police can detain anyone under circumstances that reasonably indicate the person has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a crime. These periods of temporary detainment are generally referred to as "Terry stops," a reference to the standards established in the 1968 case Terry vs. Ohio. Whether individuals must provide personal identification under the Terry doctrine depends on individual state laws.

Stop and Identify States

Many states have "stop and identify" statutes that require people to identify themselves when police have reasonable suspicion that they are engaged or about to engage in criminal activity. Under these laws, people who refuse to show identification can be arrested or charged with a misdemeanor.

Under stop and identify laws in some states, people might be required to identify themselves but might not be required to answer additional questions or provide documents proving their identity.

Stop and identify laws exist in 22 states. As you will see, some of these states require police officers to have reasonable suspicion before this requirement takes effect. States that require citizens to identify themselves are:

  • Alabama
  • Arizona
  • Arkansas
  • Colorado
  • Delaware
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Illinois
  • Indiana
  • Kansas
  • Louisiana (with reasonable suspicion)
  • Missouri (some localities, with reasonable suspicion)
  • Montana (with particularized suspicion)
  • Nebraska (with reasonable suspicion)
  • Nevada (with reasonable suspicion)
  • New Hampshire (with reasonable suspicion)
  • New York (with reasonable suspicion)
  • North Dakota (with reasonable suspicion)
  • Rhode Island
  • Utah (with reasonable suspicion)
  • Virginia (some localities)
  • Washington (some localities)

Arrest

In all states, you must provide personal identification to the police if you are arrested. You may then invoke your right to silence.

Reasonable Suspicion

To determine if police are asking you for ID because you are under "reasonable suspicion," politely ask the officers if they are detaining you or if you are free to go. If you are free to go and you don't want to divulge your identity, you can walk away. But if you are detained, you will be required by law in many states to identify yourself or risk arrest.

Right to Silence

People detained by police have the right to refuse to answer any questions, and they don't have to supply a reason for refusing to answer questions. People who wish to invoke their right to silence simply must say, "I want to speak to a lawyer," or, "I wish to remain silent." In states with stop and identify laws that make it mandatory for people to provide their identity, they must do so and then might invoke their right to silence regarding additional questions afterward

Pros and Cons of Showing ID

Showing your identification can quickly resolve cases of mistaken identity or prove your innocence. However, in certain cases—such as cases involving parole or immigration—identifying yourself could provide enough incriminating evidence to lead to your arrest.

View Article Sources
  1. "Stop and Identify Statutes in the United States." Immigrant Legal Resource Center, 2018.