Police procedure for a standard traffic stop generally has the officer pulling you over upon seeing you commit some motor vehicle infraction, asking for your license, registration, and proof of insurance. States with Duty to Inform laws also require you to give the office your concealed carry permit while notifying them if you are carrying a concealed weapon. Courts have also ruled that police officers have the right to take extra precautions as necessary given the dangerous elements of the job.
In the situation before the Utah Supreme Court, as part of the usual inquiry of the driver, the officer asked the passenger for his driver’s license. Being the law-abiding citizen, he complied.
Upon returning from his cruiser, the officer asked the passenger to exit the vehicle; running his license uncovered a warrant for his arrest. He was subsequently arrested and frisked – the action revealed a concealed knife. The driver of the vehicle was issued a citation and released.
While most of us don’t think of it on the fly because we have been conditioned to simply obey law enforcement, police have a procedure they must follow when interacting with the public considering they are in uniform and acting as an agent of the state. Due process dictates that we are innocent until proven guilty, or until we plead guilty.
Generally, the only reason an on-duty, uniform-wearing police officer will ask you for any kind of identification is if they see or have reason to believe that you’re acting suspiciously. According to the text of the ruling, the passenger in the vehicle wasn’t acting suspiciously, nor did the officer have any reason to believe that he was a danger to himself, his friend, or the officer.
The Fourth Amendment protects people against unreasonable searches and seizures of ourselves, our things, and our property without probable cause or a search warrant. Again, officers do have wide latitude when conducting a traffic stop to take action that will safeguard themselves and the party they’re stopping. Courts have also ruled ad-nauseum that a traffic stop by its very nature is dangerous and can present a number of situations in which an officer’s life can be put in danger. I would estimate that 80% of traffic stops performed are by motorists who are law-abiding, well-intentioned, and have no ill-intentions toward the officer. Other factors can include the area where the stop occurs, the type of vehicle driven, the time of day, and possibly any pre-existing factors (expired registration, stolen vehicle, defective car parts, etc…).
A reasonable reading of the situation shows that the passenger wasn’t acting strange, gave no signs that they were presenting the officer or his friend with any danger, and until the passenger’s information was run, the officer had no idea he had a warrant out for his arrest.
From a legal standpoint, the argument stating that the officer was within the right to ask identification of the passenger is reasonable, but strange. When a police officer pulls someone over, the driver is who is being accused of a violation, not the passenger. The court has merely ruled that in Utah, an officer’s asking for the passenger’s identification doesn’t violate the Fourth Amendment. It’s not a ban on asking, and it’s not a requirement that the passenger do it.
If you aren’t suspected of wrongdoing and you’re not the reason for the stop, you are within your right to ask the officer why he’s asking you for identification. It’s not advisable to get indignant about it, but there’s no harm in asking why he wants it. It’s not an indication that you don’t have one; police should not be in the business of asking citizens for identification at random or on a whim, they should have a logical and legal reason to do so.