ACLU of PA Criticizes Legislation Expanding Police Power to Arrest and Detain Individuals Without ID

September 4, 2001 12:00 am

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PHILADELPHIA–The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania today criticized proposed legislation that would dramatically expand the authority of the police to arrest and detain individuals who do not provide police officers with satisfactory identification.

“”Essentially, this legislation is calling on all of us to carry identity papers,”” said Larry Frankel, Executive Director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, who testified today against the bill at a hearing of the Pennsylvania House Judiciary Committee.

“”Whenever I see proposals like this, I begin to wonder whether we really did defeat our totalitarian enemies in the 20th century,”” he added.

In calling for the defeat of House Bill 1434, Frankel pointed out how this proposal could be easily abused. He noted that the legislation gives absolute authority to the police to determine whether the proof of identity is satisfactory. Thus an individual charged with committing an insignificant offense could end up spending hours in jail. Even if that person has identification, he or she could be indefinitely detained by a police officer who arbitrarily decides that the identification is not good enough.

Frankel’s testimony follows.







Good morning members of the Subcommittee on Crimes and Corrections. My name is Larry Frankel and I am the Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania. Thank you for inviting us to testify at today’s public hearing.

Whenever I see legislation like House Bill 1434, I begin to wonder whether we really did defeat our totalitarian enemies in the 20th century. Essentially, this legislation is calling on all of us to carry identity papers. If this legislation were to be enacted, then any citizen would be a fool to go out of his or her house without some form of identification that could be produced whenever a police officer demanded to see some kind of identification.

I recall reading about the harassment of average citizens in Fascist and Communist societies, where the authorities routinely demanded to see one’s papers. Travelers knew they were subject to arbitrary and capricious treatment at the hands of those who had the authority to force them to prove who they were. Why would we enact such a similar requirement in our free society?

But I need not look that far back to understand why this proposal is so problematic. The power that this legislation gives to police officers can be easily misused and innocent individuals could face an indeterminate period of incarceration based on assertions that they failed to produce adequate identification. A police officer who wants to effectively punish someone whose behavior he dislikes can arrest and detain that person until that officer is satisfied with the proffered means of identification.

Many of us who were in Philadelphia during the Republican National Convention remember the hundreds of young people who were arrested and detained for relatively minor offenses. A large number of them were held on high bail or no bail because they had allegedly failed to identify themselves. Since that time, we have learned that some of those young people did actually identify themselves. Nevertheless the authorities continued to insist that they had not done so. Subsequently, hundreds of those cases were dismissed.

That experience demonstrates to the ACLU the real danger of this proposal. The police can claim that someone’s proof of identity is not good enough and use that as a basis to hold him or her. The individual will have little chance to contest an arbitrary decision that the identification was inadequate. That means an individual may spend many hours in jail, even if he or she has identification. Such an individual will suffer punishment, without benefit of a hearing. Such punishment will look even more egregious should the individual be acquitted of the summary offense.

The ACLU believes that you must bear in mind the potential for abuse when considering this bill. We think that it is the responsibility of the legislature to protect the citizenry from overzealous law enforcers. You should not be enacting new laws which are invitations for misuse.

I am sure that supporters of this legislation will dismiss our concerns about possible misuse of this statue. They will claim that this law does not apply to every summary offense. They will point out that it will only come into play when a person commits a serious summary offense.

However, under this proposal, every summary offense is a serious summary offense. The term “serious summary offense” is defined on page 3 and it includes: “Any summary offense for which . . . (2) the sentencing authority is authorized to impose a term of imprisonment as part of the sentence.” Well, it just so happens that the sentencing authority has the power to impose a term of imprisonment of up to 90 days for any summary offense. See 18 Pa. C.S.A. Section 1105 (a copy of which is attached). Thus, the definition of serious summary offense is meaningless. It does not limit the government’s authority under this bill.

Finally, let me remind you of a fact that everybody in the hospitality industry knows. Anyone who travels to an urban area, in this country or abroad, is routinely warned against carrying valuables or important documents when leaving one’s hotel. Many of us, following such advice, leave our passports and even our driver’s licenses in our hotel rooms, safely locked away. Pity the poor traveler in Philadelphia or Pittsburgh who takes those necessary precautions, only to later discover himself behind bars because he couldn’t identify himself to a police officer who thought our visitor had committed a summary offense. I am sure such occurrences will not do a lot to enhance our reputation for being friendly to visitors.

The ACLU urges you to remember history and understand how this legislation could be misused and abused. We hope you will oppose House Bill 1434.

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