Fairly frequently, we represent clients who have been charged with Obstructing an Officer for failing to provide identification or providing false information during a police encounter. In February 2021, the Fourth Circuit handed down a very important ruling on this issue.
By way of background, some states have specific statutes that require a person to identify themselves to law enforcement during an encounter. While West Virginia does not have a specific statute that requires identification, police officers routinely use the Obstruction statute in the same way to compel identification.
During interactions with citizens, police officers almost always ask for identification, whether that be a driver’s license or simply the individual’s name and date of birth. If that information is withheld, for whatever reason or no reason at all, then the police officer will likely threaten to charge the person with Obstruction.
In Wingate v. Fulford, the Fourth Circuit ruled that the initial seizure of the person must be constitutional before police officers can enforce a stop and identify statute. For a person to be briefly detained, or what is commonly referred to as a Terry stop, police must have reasonable, articulable, and particularized suspicion that the person is engaged in criminal activity. If there is no such suspicion, then the seizure or detainment is unreasonable and violates the Fourth Amendment.
If a person is stopped or seized in violation of the Fourth Amendment, then the police may not compel identification by threatening to charge the person with Obstruction.
This is a very important ruling that our attorneys have already used to defend clients.