ACLU of Michigan Challenges Police Arrests of People Who Refuse to Identify Themselves

Affiliate: ACLU of Michigan
November 29, 1999 12:00 am

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EAST LANSING, MI — The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan today filed a lawsuit against city and police officials here, challenging the constitutionality of the police department’s practice of arresting, detaining and prosecuting people for refusing to produce identification upon demand.

The ACLU challenges this practice in federal district court under the First, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution. The lawsuit was filed against the City of East Lansing, the Chief of Police, and a police officer involved in an arrest.

“In our constitutional democracy, citizens should not be required to produce identification in order to walk on the street,” said ACLU of Michigan Executive Director Kary Moss. “This widespread practice is clearly unconstitutional. We will seek damages and a declaration from the court that this practice is illegal.”

The case arises out of the arrest and prosecution of Travis Risbridger, a resident of Brooklyn, New York, who was visiting the city of East Lansing in November 1997. While walking down the street, he was approached by an East Lansing policeman who demanded that he produce identification.

When he refused, he was arrested, handcuffed, and held overnight until he was released on bond. Risbridger was prosecuted under the East Lansing municipal disorderly conduct ordinance, which prohibits anyone from hindering a police officer in the performance of his duties.

Following a hearing, District Judge Richard B. Ball concluded that: “There was no basis for arrest of the defendant absent a warrant. He was free to decline to speak with the police officer. The arrest was invalid.”

The ACLU now seeks to have this practice declared unconstitutional and suspended.

“The United States Supreme Court has consistently required that there be some reason, some probable cause of the existence of a crime before the police can arrest and prosecute persons,” said ACLU cooperating attorney Dorean Koenig. “Unlike the pass laws of South Africa or the laws of Germany from 1933 to 1945, the police cannot demand that persons on the streets produce identification upon demand, or be convicted of a crime for failing to do so. Such laws are repugnant to our Constitution.”

Aaron Allen, president of the Michigan State University Chapter of the ACLU, said that students in the area are often subjected to demands for ID.

“The police practice of arresting students for failure to produce ID is indicative of the problems between the police and students,” Allen said. “Students should be aware of their rights. East Lansing is not a police state.”

The ACLU’s legal complaint is available online at:

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