Attitude Check

New numbers show that DPD's "failure to ID" charge doesn't apply to everyone

Why is Houston plain and simple and aboveboard even when it's wrong, and Dallas is sneaky and convoluted even when it's right? Urban karma? Their main tourist attraction is the Galleria Mall. Ours is Dealey Plaza. Case closed.

Example: the issue of arresting people for "failure to identify."

Dallas police continue to arrest people improperly for failure to identify themselves, even though the official police policy in Dallas for at least a decade has spelled out exactly how this charge may and may not be used in Texas.

Police Chief Terrell Bolton admits that the Dallas police need to clean up their act regarding arrests for “failure to ID.”
Peter Calvin
Police Chief Terrell Bolton admits that the Dallas police need to clean up their act regarding arrests for “failure to ID.”

For a long time in Houston, on the other hand, they just had it wrong. Official policy there up until recently was that the cops could arrest you just for refusing to give them your name. By state law, they can't. You have to provide a police officer with identification only if you are already under arrest for something else. If you have been detained as a witness, you don't have to give your name, but it is against the law to give a fake name. Other than these exceptions, a police officer has no right to demand that you identify yourself.

When you think about it, this is a pretty basic American concept. Demanding identity papers is something Claude Rains might have done to Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, but it's not something many of us consider a normal part of American life. It grates against a fundamental American sense of personal liberty. Of course, the Houston case is a beautiful example of whose normal American life we're usually talking about with this charge.

Late one night three and a half years ago in Kingwood, an affluent, newly annexed area far north of downtown Houston, a resident called police to complain about a black male running around wildly in his underpants and boots. An officer found the guy and flagged him over to the patrol car for a little chat. But the man refused and kept running. Two other officers showed up and demanded that the man talk to them. He refused again. They cuffed him and put him in the car. They demanded that he identify himself, and he refused to give his name, so they busted him for failure to ID.

When it was all sorted out, the man really hadn't been running around in his underwear. He was running around in his running shorts, T-shirt, and running shoes. He was in the area because he lived there. And he knew a lot about the law, because he was a federal judge.

Now for the pop quiz: In this particular real-life scenario in which an American citizen was arrested for failure to ID, which part of the situation did the cops get right?

You got it! He was, as the facts proved, black.

But here is the good news about Houston: Eventually the city attorney and the Houston police chief and the Houston City Council all stood up in the council chamber in front of the cameras, hiked up their trousers, raised a hand, and said, "My bad." Last November the Houston City Council agreed to pay federal immigration Judge Jimmie L. Benton, 46, damages of $55,000 for his wrongful arrest on a charge of failure to ID. An assistant chief of police told reporters, "They had reasonable cause to stop him, but they had no probable cause for arrest."

And Houston City Attorney Anthony Hall said, "The mere failure to identify yourself to a police officer is not an offense in this state."

In Dallas, a recently released set of numbers shows conclusively that the use and misuse of this charge here is a racial and ethnic issue. In response to a demand from the Citizens/Police Review Board, the Dallas Police Department released numbers showing that between January 1995 and September 2000, almost 60 percent of the people arrested for failure to ID in Dallas were black.

Stack that against a black population usually estimated at about 30 percent of the city, and you have black people being arrested for this offense at two times the rate of their demographic presence.

In the period reported by the police department, a total of 17,665 Dallas citizens were charged with failure to ID. One of the arguments Dallas police officials have made for arresting people on this charge is what they claim has been a high conviction rate: By their count, just over 9,000 cases in the reporting period have been disposed of, with 85 percent resulting in "convictions."

If the police are handling this charge the wrong way, police officials asked the Citizens/Police Review Board, why does the criminal justice system find that 85 percent of the people brought to trial on it are guilty?

But David Davis, a Dallas attorney who is now representing two people on this issue, examined the full set of numbers released by the police department and came to a very different conclusion. Of the 9,003 closed cases, Davis points out, 1,391 were dismissed. That leaves 7,612 failure to ID cases that resulted in a finding of guilt or innocence. Of those, exactly one case produced a verdict of not guilty.

But of the other 7,611 cases that police officials bragged about to the review board, claiming an 85 percent conviction rate, 6,340 actually were plea bargains in which the defendant was sentenced to "time served." Time served is the night you spend in jail waiting to get arraigned.

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