Jan 282020

Philadelphia residents and residents of other counties like Delaware or Chester County are often stopped on the street by police. In many situations, police will ask to see an individual’s identification card. What happens when an individual gives their ID to an officer, the officer searches the person or their items and finds contraband?

In this PA criminal law article by our Philly criminal defense law firm, we discuss an individual’s legal rights when approached on the street by an officer who asks to see the person’s ID.

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Are police officers allowed to ask for your ID even though they didn’t see you commit a crime?

Yes. Under current state and federal constitutional law, a police officer is allowed to approach a person on the street and question the person or ask to see ID. Courts have found that merely asking for an ID does not, in and of itself, rise to the level of seizing a person (i.e., the person is not free to leave). Under current law, seizing or detaining a person on the street requires reasonable suspicion that the person has committed a crime. Courts also reason that individuals may ignore the request and decline to provide their ID cards.

However, if the officer directly or indirectly sends a message that the person is required to produce an ID, the officer may be violating the person’s constitutional rights.

Example: A Philadelphia resident is walking down the street to a local deli. A uniformed officer has a vague hunch that the person is engaging in some criminal activity only because the area is known as a high crime area. The officer approaches the resident and asks where the resident is going. The resident says he is going to the deli a few doors down. The officer says, “Hey, can I see your ID?”

More: Pennsylvania Criminal Charges – Were You Stopped on the Street by Police in Philadelphia or the Nearby Counties?

At this point, the officer is acting with the limits of constitutional law. However, if the officer says, “You better give me your ID, or I’ll have to take you in” there’s a good argument that the officer has expressly told the resident that he is not free to go, and therefore, the officer has now detained the resident. A court is likely to agree if there are other circumstances which show that the resident wasn’t free to go. Factors that would help the resident include the following: the officer grabbed the resident’s arm, drew their gun, etc.

The key is the totality of the circumstances. Looking at the total situation, were there factors which would have led a reasonable person to believe they weren’t free to go? If so, the officer is legally required to have reasonable suspicion that the person is engaged in criminal activity. If there are no factors, then the officer has violated the person’s constitutional rights.  For more info, visit the PA Criminal Law Library.