"Papers, please," a phrase commonly heard in Nazi Germany — where officials had the right to demand identification of anyone at any time — could soon become familiar in Ohio.
House Bill 151 would empower police officers to ask for your identification, name, address, date of birth and for you to state your business, even if you've done nothing wrong.
There's a difference, of course. In Germany, the surveillance society was driven by an obsession with racial purity. In 2005 America, the obsession is with security from a terrorist menace.
"It gives us the illusion of making us safer while trampling our civil liberties in the process," says Carrie Davis, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio.
Davis is referring to several pieces of "Stop and Identify" legislation being considered at the state level and a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding such laws.
Arrested for silence
H.B. 151, introduced in March by State Rep. Chuck Calvert (R-Medina), would give police the authority to stop anyone, demand identification and force the person to state his or her business. All this could be done without any crime having been committed; a subject would just have to look suspicious to an officer. Refusing to comply would be a criminal offense.
Calvert says the bill is being modified to apply only to people who are suspected of having committed a crime. State Rep. Bill Seitz (R-Green Township) says this bill will not pass and would be superceded by Senate Bill 9.
S.B. 9, known colloquially as the "Ohio Patriot Act," would impose criminal penalties on anyone who refused to give an officer his or her name, address and date of birth — unless providing this information would incriminate them.
"Sometimes the date of birth can be incriminating with certain sexual crimes," Seitz says.
In this and other situations in which a person might put herself in legal jeopardy by revealing personal information, subjects would still be protected by the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which protects the right to avoid self-incrimination. But that protection would still be weakened, because police could demand information from both suspects and witnesses, according to Davis.
"That could potentially apply to anybody," she says.
In Hiibel v. Humboldt County, the Supreme Court upheld the conviction of a man who had refused to give identification to a police officer. In May 2000, passersby had observed Dudley Hiibel arguing with his 17-year-old daughter along the side of a road in Humboldt County, Nev. Police were called to investigate, and the officer on the scene insisted on seeing Hiibel's ID.
When Hiibel refused and asked why the officer wanted to see his ID, he was told that it was part of the investigation. After Hiibel still refused, he was arrested and fined $250 for delaying a police officer. The Supreme Court declared this constitutional.
'License for corrupt police'
The proposed state laws come at a time when the federal government is also strengthening police powers to identify and spy on Americans.
The USA PATRIOT Act — an acronym for "Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism" — is currently under review by the Senate Judicial Committee, which includes Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio).
Major provisions in the PATRIOT Act, in place since 2001 and now up for renewal, include the Library Provision, which allows the government to obtain records from any third party — such as a library, bank or doctor — with little or no judicial oversight. A Justice Department attorney must notify a judge that the agency is conducting a terrorism-related investigation, but the judge cannot stop the inspection.
The Sneak and Peek Provision allows the government to search a home or office without the resident's knowledge, through a process called "delayed notification." This means that the Justice Department would not have to notify the subject of a search until the trial, the end of the "War on Terror" or whenever it decides to do so. The ACLU considers this a major affront to the Fourth Amendment.
Under the Real ID (RID) Act passed in May, by 2008 all states will have to conform driver licenses to federal standards and require proof of citizenship before granting a license. The bill was part of an $82 billion spending bill authorizing funds for tsunami relief and the war in Iraq.
People without this ID won't be able to open bank accounts, collect social security or get on airplanes. The counterpart to this ID card, which will be used to keep track of immigrants, is the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements (SAVE). The pointed acronyms make an interesting footnote.
Seitz says the Orwellian overtones of H.B. 151 and similar legislation aren't lost on him. He describes debates on these laws as "an area where conservatives and liberals can come together. We have to be very careful not to turn this into some kind of broader license to make this a police state. It could turn into a general license for corrupt police to terrorize the public."
But Seitz says H.B. 151 is moot because of constitutional problems.
"It transgresses well established precepts against self-incrimination," he says.
Seitz says he believes S.B. 9 will pass, but only after revision following the completion of the USA PATRIOT Act.
Calvert, who helped write H.B. 151, says it would simply help police do their jobs without a lot of hassle.
"People (in my district) were avoiding identifying themselves when approached by police," he says. "I think that a person who has committed a crime should identify themselves to the police."
Calvert says he modified the bill to apply only to people who were suspected of committing a crime, as opposed to anyone police thought might commit a crime, after receiving just six letters in opposition to the legislation.
"It takes us really close to being a 'show me your papers' society," the ACLU's Davis says. ©